Sunday, 29 September 2013

Time for one last September surprise?

27th-29th September
Although census and ringing take up the bulk of the time at this time of year, we're still not quite finished seabird work yet - a few tardy juvenile Gannets mean that we're still having to check the colonies regularly before we can come up with the final productivity figures.
With a day of south-easterly winds followed by a murky, foggy day and then a return to clearer skies and more strong south-easterlies, the conditions remained promising and, although generally there were not large numbers of incoming birds, by late on 29th there were signs that migrants were starting to pitch up in greater volume.

The star arrival of the period was a Lanceolated Warbler at Shirva on 28th, which spent its time running along under a rose bush whilst fascinated observers could peer over a small wall and watch this quintessential Fair Isle rarity just a couple of feet away. Rarer still was the Syke’s Warbler, which remained at Vaila’s Trees throughout, showing well at times. The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll put in another appearance at Taft on 28th (with up to 10 Common Redpoll also present).
Scarcities were represented by Yellow-browed Warblers (with daily counts of 32, 20 and 29 and an apparently relatively high turnover of individuals), 2 Barred Warblers on 27th (with one remaining to 28th), 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers on 27th (with one still present in South Reeva to 29th) and a Corncrake at Boini Mire (28th). At least 4 Great Spotted Woodpeckers remained on 27th and up to 3 were seen until 29th.
The 29th saw two relatively unglamorous year ticks, with 2 Grey Plover and 4 Scaup seen whilst the first autumns records of flava Wagtail, Reed Bunting and Stonechat also arrived on the same date. The North recorded the bulk of the common migrants on 29th, with island totals of 96 Song Thrush, 27 Brambling, 27 Robin, 15 Blackcap, 10 Lapland Buntings, 10 Chaffinch, 4 Siskin, 3 Goldcrest along with Hen Harrier and Dunnock, all of which hinted at more discoveries to come in the forthcoming days…

Thursday, 26 September 2013

One to get ready...

...two to get steady,
three to get ready to rumble.
Watch us wreck the mic,
watch us wreck the mic,
watch us wreck the mic,
There wasn't the intensity of the regular rarity fix of yesterday, but today was another good day of birding on Fair Isle. A light easterly wind was accompanied by sunny skies and warm temperatures and another small pulse of birds arriving.
The Syke's Warbler at Lower Stoneybrek was the undoubted highlight and became the third island record, (following the first two British records which were found on Fair Isle in 1959 and 1977). Although it could vanish for short periods, it seemed pretty settled and showed well for most of the afternoon.
The Nightjar in the Gully was also a good bird for Fair Isle, only the 27th record for the island.
The island's first Nightjar since 2009 (and just the 4th autumn record).
Arrival of the day though probably belonged to Yellow-browed Warblers, which have responded to the easterly winds to arrive en-masse in the UK. After some reasonable counts, Shetland seems to have been deluged today and Fair Isle added to the impressive influx with an island total of 40 today (the second highest ever day-count for the island).
1, 2, 3... Flitting from garden to garden in little roving flocks, getting a count of Yellow-browed Warblers was rather tricky (although it's a problem none of us mind having!).
Other scarcities today included a Barred Warbler, 3 Great Spotted Woodpeckers, 2 Common Rosefinch and the long-staying Red-backed Shrike at the Obs. An intriguing record concerned a beautiful male Red-breasted Flycatcher in Steensi Geo, which was seen to already have been ringed (it was one of at least 3 Red-breasted Flycatchers on the island today). The Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll was also still present today, along with at least two North-western Common Redpoll.
Common migrants increased slightly with totals of 12 Willow Warbler, 4 Chiffchaff, 7 Blackcap, 3 Redstart, 3 Brambling, 9 Grey Heron, Goldcrest, Sparrowhawk and Short-eared Owl (the first record since July) all representing increases, although it's still not a massive fall by any means and counts of Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Wheatear and Snow Bunting all showed notable decreases.
The wind is set to stay in the south-east tomorrow and there seems no reason not to hope for another decent bird or two yet...
One of yesterday's highlights - the Olive-backed Pipit at the Obs (photo by David Parkin)
And another - the Lanceolated Warbler at Da Water (photo by David Parkin)

And how about this? Steve Arlow's  picture of yesterday's White's Thrush, the best picture of one of these amazing birds in the field I've seen from the UK.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

What. A. Day.

25th September
An Olive-backed Pipit (I know it isn't a BBRC species anymore, but it still deserves red font I think) at the Obs before breakfast caused a bit of a scramble to get everyone to see it – but it was quickly forgotten as somewhere in the melee came the shout of ‘WHITE’S THRUSH AT THE GENERATOR’. The Obs emptied pretty quickly and there was a tense wait as the crowd gathered and had the exact area of hillside that it had landed on pointed out to them. Once everyone was there, an organised flush saw the bird fly a short way and land on an area of bare hillside. With everyone now watching this amazing spectacle, the bird proceeded to perform a similar manoeuvre several times allowing superb views. This mega thrush disappeared down a rabbit burrow several times before popping up and regularly sitting in the open, where it remained for a few hours.

Fair Isle's 12th White's Thrush and first since 2009.
It's not very often I'm pleased to see black and white stripes, but this bird really was amazing!
Craig Thomas and John Beaumont were out early to make the most of Craig's last day on the island and had been caught out in an unexpected deluge, leading Craig to utter the words'No bird is worth this soaking'. Thirty seconds later, when this flushed from his feet, he freely admitted to changing his mind!
With everyone satisfied with the views we retreated to the Obs for breakfast (where Graham had managed to superbly judge the length of time he’d be on the twitch so the sausages were cooked to perfection on our return!) and wondered what the rest of the day would bring.
There were clearly a few more thrushes around (although not massive numbers, with just 24 Redwing, 24 Song Thrush, 8 Fieldfare and the first Blackbird of the autumn noted at Log) and a small arrival of common migrants saw Spotted Flycatcher, 2 Chiffchaff, Brambling, 2 North-western Common Redpoll and 6 Woodpigeon amongst the species noted. Scarcities were represented by a new Bluethroat at Bull’s Park, 2 Red-breasted Flycatcher in North Raeva, 16 Yellow-browed Warblers (a minimum count, with birds seemingly scattered all over the island), Barred Warblers at Schoolton and Chalet, 2 Common Rosefinch, at least 5 Great Spotted Woodpecker and the lingering Red-backed Shrike at the Obs.
I was pretty happy with my lot already when a monstrous pale blob flew up from the roadside near Haa and perched briefly on the wall before flying off over the Chapel. Surely a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll, but I’d need better views for the description. Whilst searching for it with a few people who were nearby, I received a call from Will saying he’d just had an Upland Sandpiper fly over him as he was chatting to Steve Arlow at Furse! This day was now just crazy! Sadly the sandpiper was not relocated, although thankfully the redpoll was refound in the Nether Taft veg garden (feeding alongside a Common Rosefinch in a Twite flock) before performing well at Burkle later in the day, allowing the identification to be clinched. 
After the initial sighting, my views of the Arctic Redpoll were mostly distant, although it was a big, distinctive beast.
Everyone happy? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean that folk had stopped looking for more and the next message I got was for an interesting locustella at Da Water, with the group who found it being pretty happy it was a Lanceolated Warbler – which it duly turned out to be!

So, just to recap: White’s Thrush, Upland Sandpiper, Lanceolated Warbler, Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll and Olive-backed Pipit. With more south easterlies forecast for the next few days there’s the chance of more birds to come, but today will take some beating.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Creaking floodgates?

23rd-24th September
As predicted, Monday was rather grim and foggy; only my Mum got into Fair Isle and, as the planes were cancelled, she had to take the Good Shepherd (there wasn't room for Dad, he had to wait until Tuesday). She’s not the best of sailors, so at least it shows she loves me! The weather cleared on Tuesday, with a brisk north-easterly greeting the day and excitement levels were ratcheted up several notches as the talk of whether I’d be asked for an interview for the Sunderland manager’s job (if Alex McLeish is in the running then surely I’ve got a chance as well?) were replaced by pure bird-chat.

The 23rd wasn’t entirely without birds, although only a few scarcities were lingering (eg just 1 Yellow-browed Warbler) and the first Water Rail of the autumn and blue Fulmar were the highlights of the new birds. With Merlin and 20 Golden Plover amongst the species seen from the Good Shepherd, there were clearly birds on the move, it was just a problem for most of them to find us. I wonder if the Obs should try to get the foghorn working again?
Although we were hoping for great things on 24th, it was clear from the off that it was going to be hard work, with migrants in, but not in large numbers. However, we still finished with a noticeable increase to 7 Yellow-browed Warblers, along with small rise in common warblers. Other migrants of note included a Turtle Dove (our first of the year), at least six Great Spotted Woodpecker (there have only been two autumn records since the last influx in 2001 and this is probably now amongst the top three invasions to Fair Isle since the 1970s), a small arrival of thrushes, with 2 Fieldfare, 13 Song Thrush and 22 Redwing noted, 9 Crossbill, 4 Pied Flycatcher, 2 Chaffinch, Redstart (only the 3rd individual of the month), a large increase in Meadow Pipits (to 620) along with lingering Barred Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and 2 Common Rosefinch, 8 Lapland Buntings and 155 Snow Buntings (although the latter may well be an underestimate as several mobile flocks were seen).
Great Spotted Woodpecker in the wonderfully named Skinner's Glig (a small geo at the back of Ward Hill). With sightings from many parts of the island today, the count of 6 may well have been an underestimate. Biometrics from a trapped bird and the skull of an individual found dead earlier in the week indicate that these birds probably belong to the Scandinavian race Dendrocopos major major, the race thought to account for virtually all records in Shetland.
On the sea there were the autumn’s first 3 Goldeneye, two Long-tailed Ducks and an impressive 7 Slavonian Grebes (5 off South Light, 2 in Furse). The latter is a new Fair Isle record count and coincidentally comes just a day after a group of 5 were seen off North Ron, which was also a record island count.
So, a good day's birding, albeit hard work at times and despite the lack of any major rarities. However, with the forecast looking promising for a while yet at least, I'd expect more birds tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, there'll be a biggy waiting for us somewhere. One thing's for sure, we'll all be out again all day tomorrow and enjoying every minute of it; Fair Isle, late September, easterly winds, birds coming in - what's not to love?!

Monday, 23 September 2013

Opportunity Equinox

21st-22nd September
As we reach the fever pitch of late September on Fair Isle, the westerly winds continue to dominate and birding has yet to really pick up, although the continued arrival of a few new scarcities has kept things going. We’ve now moved dinner back an hour to make the most of the declining daylight hours (we do everything possible to increase the chance of finding good birds at this time of year!) and it looks like the weather may possibly be going to break in our favour after Monday, which has added a real air of anticipation to the Obs.

Will it still be saying that come Tuesday morning...
The 21st saw most of the decent birds in the North, with Red-breasted Flycatchers at the Obs and Easter Lother, Yellow-browed Warblers at Easter Lother and Lerness (a bird on one of the most westerly cliffs of Fair Isle, presumably about to continue its westward push into almost certain doom, or Foula), Barred Warbler on Buness (with another in the south), the lingering Red-backed Shrike at the Obs, 2 Great Spotted Woodpeckers (with at least one more down south, bringing the total number of individuals seen so far in this arrival to an impressive 7), along with the majority of the 153 Snow Buntings, 6 Lapland Buntings, the first House Martin of the month and the only Goldcrest of the day.
The Easter Lother Red-breasted Flycatcher riding the surf.
The Yellow-browed Warbler preferred the drier clifftop at Easter Lother.
Elsewhere on the island there were still 2 Common Rosefinch, a Green Sandpiper (the first of the month), the autumn’s first 2 Dunnocks, a Siskin, a blue Fulmar, 2 Long-tailed Duck and 141 Pink-footed Geese. The good recent run of cetaceans continued with another 5 Risso’s Dolphin.
The calmer conditions of the 22nd caught out a few folk who had expected heavy rain and strong westerlies, so had perhaps overindulged a bit at the previous night’s Pirate Party, although even those who weren’t feeling a touch groggy failed to find much in the way of new birds. Presumed lingering scarcities included 2 Yellow-browed Warbler, 2 Barred Warbler, 3 Common Rosefinch, Red-backed Shrike and Great Spotted Woodpecker whilst there were still 156 Snow and 8 Lapland Bunting around the island.
The largest flocks of Snow Bunting have tended to be around North Light, where over 200 were counted earlier in the week.
A distinct arrival of Pink-footed Geese saw several skeins meandering around the island, with a final total of at least 471 present. At sea there was our first Slavonian Grebe of the autumn at Wirvie, with Sooty Shearwater, 2 Red-throated Diver and blue Fulmar also seen.
One of the skeins of Pink-feet today, this one arrived from out at sea from the the southwest (having posibily already left from the south of the island earlier) and departed north along the east coast before what were probably the same birds were seen heading south down the east later. It always makes a good start for Log, trying to figure the numbers involved in the day's sightings!
Cap'ns Log at the Pirate Party (thanks to Mati Ventrillon for the photo). 'Any Greylaaaaag?'
So what of that forecast? Well, Monday seems set to be wet, cloudy and with the possibility of mist and fog effecting transport (bad news for my Mum and Dad who are due to arrive in the morning), but by midnight we could see the wind coming from the North-east. With record counts of Yellow-browed Warblers being recorded from several Norwegian islands (160 today on an island just over 7 square miles in size according to Birdguides), that wind could well be bringing us some good birds very soon. It feels like this could be the week when our autumn (which has already been pretty good) really bursts into life.
Of course it's not just about the rare birds. This colour-ringed Rock Pipit at South Harbour was making its first appearance anywhere since it was ringed at Rosehearty in Aberdeenshire on 27th February 2013. At least three birds colour-ringed in the winter in Aberdeenshire have bred on Fair Isle this year, whilst this one has presumably summered further North and is now heading back to Grampian.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Sun, sea mammals and scarcities.

19th-20th September

No big rarities, but a beautiful sunny day on 19th and some pleasant birding over both days as migrants continued to come in, despite the freshening SW wind. After several days of gales and rain, the lack of wind and the sunshine on Thursday were enjoyable enough to be out in, but the fact that birds were arriving (albeit in fairly small numbers) was an added bonus. A small arrival of warblers saw the Yellow-browed count rise to 3, 2 Barred Warblers (in what has been a relatively quiet autumn so far for the species), Wood Warbler, 12 Willow Warbler and 6 Blackcap, with ones and twos of several other species. A Red-breasted Flycatcher in Schwarzi Geo was well received and the Red-backed Shrike was still performing around the Obs. A Hen Harrier appeared briefly at Wirvie in the evening and Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine were also present. Swallows posted their highest total of the month with 17 passing through and two Peacock butterflies were the first of September.
Birding the geos is not always easy, so well done to the birders who picked out the Red-breasted Flycatcher (our first of the autumn). Can you spot it?!
How about this Yellow-browed Warbler? The number of good birds that must be missed at the base of cliffs and geos that aren't visible from the island top isn't worth thinking about!
The day ended beautifully with the flat calm seas being broken by the fins of a group of 11 Risso’s Dolphins that surfaced in Finnequoy, just outside the Obs and put on a great show briefly, before heading down the island and being seen off South Light. A group of 7 White-beaked Dolphins headed past further out as well to cap a fine day.
Not a bad sight from the kitchen window. The 'spyhopping' Risso's Dolphin in the middle appears to be trying to see what we're having for dinner.
The 20th saw a fresher wind and, with nothing caught on morning traps, there was a suspicion that perhaps we had peaked for a while. However, that proved not to be the case and by the end of the day the total of scarcities stood at: 7 Yellow-browed Warbler (how many would there be if the wind got round to the east?), 4 Barred Warblers, 2 Bluethroat (both in the Wirvie Burn), 3 Common Rosefinch, Corncrake (also in the Wirvie Burn, which was the place to be today, with at least one of virtually every scarcity!) and the lingering Red-breasted Flycatcher and Red-backed Shrike. The Wirvie also attracted a Great Spotted Woodpecker (presumably the bird originally seen at North Light), whilst the bird remained at the Obs (presumably a different bird was over the School on 19th).
Driftwood in the garden provides entertainment for the Great Spotted Woodpecker. A few peanuts stuffed into the various logs will hopefuly help this rather tired migrant to build up the strength to continue its journey to somewhere more suitable.
Counts of common migrants on 20th were generally unexceptional, although Lesser Whitethroats increased to 9, Song Thrush increased to 4, the first Goldcrest of the autumn was seen, 3 Pied Flycatchers arrived and there were 6 Jack Snipe. A few Redpolls of various sizes and shades were seen (mostly in flight, but grounded birds have included Mealy and North-western), the first Chaffinch of the autumn was at the Obs and up to 190 Snow Buntings and 9 Lapland Buntings remain.
On days when birds are arriving, they can appear in odd places - this Yellow-browed Warbler is on top of the Rippack, a relatively high point covered in heather but not much in the way of cover or typical phyllosc habitat.
All in all, the birding has been very enjoyable and there’s definitely the hope that there’s something else lurking out there waiting to be found. Recent years have seen Arctic Warbler and a couple of Citrine Wagtails found on 21st, whilst there are also records of Red-flanked Bluetail and River Warbler and (in 1956) Britain's first Steppe Grey Shrike. Useful for the year list would be Little Grebe, Curlew Sandpiper or Spotted Crake, all of which have also arrived on 21st September in the relatively recent past, but maybe we could still be in for something American, Bobolink has occurred in Shetland on 21st before, so we'll be checking the sparrow flocks even more carefully tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Autumn excitement mounting.

18th September
Another day of howling westerly winds and some vicious showers, although the morning at least was largely dry with some very pleasant sunny spells. The highlight of the day was definitely Susannah making it back in to the island. She’s looking rather happy having been to a wedding and visiting family (although that might not last when she sees the state of the shop till after I tried to take over the Administrators role whilst she was away…).
The birds continued to be a combination of species arriving from both sides, with Snow Bunting the stand-out highlight (on North census at least), with a minimum of 345 counted today (the largest September influx since 1998, although numbers in October/November are often higher). There were also at least 15 Lapland Buntings, whilst 19 Pink-footed Geese passed through. The influx of 149 Snipe may have also been from the west, although they were accompanied by 3 Jack Snipe. Definitely from the east were 2 Yellow-browed Warblers (together in Swarzi Geo) and 3 Common Rosefinch, whilst the Great Spotted Woodpecker (which photos show is different to the bird yesterday at South Harbour) and Red-backed Shrike both remained around the Obs.
These two Common Rosefinches were at the Obs this morning (you might recognise the fence as being the one outside my office window!), with probably the same pair at Lower Stoneybrek later, whilst a single was also at Kenaby.
Skylarks posted their highest count of the autumn so far, with 136 recorded and 2 Song Thrushes and a Brambling were new for the autumn. Of the 3 Common Redpoll seen, at least 2 were ‘Mealy’ (rather than the perhaps more expected ‘North-western’).
Other sightings of interest today included singles of Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and Red-throated Diver.
There’s a growing sense of anticipation that tomorrow’s calmer conditions could see more birds discovered, although it’s difficult to guess which direction any highlights might come from. The 19th is the 39th anniversary of a Baltimore Oriole on Meoness, whilst we’re also in prime Buff-bellied Pipit time. However, given the trickle of eastern birds sneaking through, I’m going to stick my neck out and say there could be a Sibe BB, maybe a cheeky Lancey?

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Snow Fall of Snaa Ful

16th-17th September
The Atlantic swell beating against the west cliffs in the last couple of days has been impressive.
Two days of blasting westerly wind saw very little happen on 16th, followed by an unexpected (albeit small) arrival of eastern migrants on 17th. It was headlined by our first Yellow-browed Warbler of the year (found by Richard lurking around the Generator Shed [I should probably clarify that it was the warbler doing most of the lurking]) and Common Rosefinch at Lower Stoneybrek.

Always a treat - the first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn arrived five days earlier than last year (although in 2012 they arrived en-masse with 14 seen). With winds strong enough to making standing still difficult on the North cliffs, it's amazing that birds like this (weighing less than 10g) are able to make it here from Siberia! Presumably the latest leg of its journey has been from somewhere closer - but where? Surely it hasn't reorientated from Iceland? A journey round the top of the low pressure system that is currently hitting us is probably the most likely explanation. Many thanks to Dave Curtis for the photo.
A Red-backed Shrike at the Haa may have been a new bird, with the Obs individual still present in the early morning at least, there were Great Spotted Woodpecker sightings from several locations around the island, 2 Jack Snipe were present, a Spotted Flycatcher at the North Light was new and there were higher counts of Swallows (7) and Skylark (119) amongst a few other common bits and bobs.
A classic 'forlorn Great Spotted Woodpecker on treeless island' shot! This is possibly the same bird that has been roaming the island recently; hopefully photos from various locations will help to prove the number of birds involved. It made it onto the kitchen window list today!
More typical birds from the west though were 2 Pink-footed Geese, 5 Greylag, and 8 Lapland Bunting (whilst a Common Redpoll could have come from either direction), but the star of the show was certainly the Snow Bunting (or Snaa ful in Shetland), which increased from 7 on 16th to 127 on 17th. There were several small flocks, but it seemed like there were ones and twos scattered across a lot of the island, creating an enjoyable census in the North (where all bar 12 of them were recorded).
Snow Buntings have been an important food source in the past on Shetland (when large flocks would have been present in autumn and early winter) and the trap above was used on Fair Isle in the 1940s. It now resides in the Shetland museum in Lerwick, so this influx of Snaa fuls can rest easy - we'll only be trying to capture them on camera!
It looks like the morning of the 18th is going to be a bit grim, but after that we may start to see the wind decrease and, with birds now arriving from all directions, there’s a chance that there may be a few interesting things to be found.
This is what you want to see on Fair Isle in mid-September - birders staring intently into a ditch a few feet in front of them!
Today it was a Jack Snipe, tomorrow who knows...

Monday, 16 September 2013

Lights, camera, American!

11th-15th September
Well, we’re half way through September already – where has the time gone?! We’re experiencing a run of westerlies that are making things tough going at times (not least on 15th, when a south-westerly gale combined with a lot of rain to produce miserable conditions), although there are a still birds to be picked out.
It has been a busy time at the Obs, with a film crew staying on the island, which has proved an interesting experience. The film crew also got to see a bit of Obs life, when a scene at North Light was interrupted by an American Golden Plover circling loudly overhead before landing behind the camera (12th). I assume they’ll cut the bit where I scurried into shot to get my telescope back to get a better look at it! That has been it so far in terms of Transatlantic vagrants, although the spell of weather we’re enjoying/enduring at the moment keeps us hoping for more.
The 11th AGP for Fair Isle and the first since 2005.
A calmer day on 13th saw the westerly winds drop away and a selection of birds from the opposite direction make it through. Leading the way was an Arctic Warbler, initially seen at Taft before roaming several of the crofts.
The fourth Arctic Warbler of the autumn showed well at times (here it's at the classic location of Schoolton), but was rather mobile. [EDIT: I've just realised that adding up the number of Arctic Warblers seen this year on Fair Isle was a quadarctic equation. That's a pun on quadratic equation. Not really worth the edit was it? Sorry, but that's what happens when Susannah isn't here to keep my excess punning in check].
The same day also produced a Great Spotted Woodpecker at Easter Lother then Roskillie (a less than annual migrant on Fair Isle, but well predicted by Richard the previous evening who reckoned an unusually large movement on the Norwegian coast would see us getting one soon – we’ll certainly be listening to his next prediction!), along with a Marsh Warbler (at Schoolton), 18 Willow Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Reed Warbler, Tree Pipit and Carrion Crow. There were also peaks of Common Rosefinch (5), Red-backed Shrike (3), and Lapland Bunting (10) on 13th, all of which were present throughout. Otherwise it was pretty slow for passerine migration, although the first Snow Bunting of the autumn arrived on 11th (when the first Jack Snipe of the season was also seen), there were 10 Whinchat on 14th (when 70 Wheatears was the highest count since 5th) and Skylarks increased, with 116 on 13th. A Woodpigeon was present throughout and the Subalpine Warbler showed no sign of moving on, roaming the middle of the island until 14th at least.
The gales of 15th did bring the first 15 Pink-footed Geese with them, with other wildfowl during the week including peaks of 38 Wigeon and 26 Teal.
Touchdown. After arriving from Iceland in a SW gale, these Pink-feet were presumably in need of a rest.
At sea there were Sooty Shearwaters on 12th, 14th and 15th, blue Fulmar on 11th and Red-throated Diver on 13th, whilst the big blow of the 15th brought 5 Arctic Terns, a handful of Kittiwakes and the month’s first Common Tern within sight. The calmer days provided several cetacean sightings, with up to 15 White-beaked Dolphins, 15 Porpoise, Minke Whale on 3 dates and a Risso’s Dolphin on 13th. Sadly, none of the cetaceans were seen from the Swan when it provided a sailing trip for the schoolchildren on 14th, although it was still a great experience (Grace managed about 15 minutes before being sick then sleeping through the rest of the trip, although she still enjoyed it apparently ‘yes, it was great!’ ).
The Swan in North Haven.
Susannah is away for a few days and (other than breaking my computer within a few hours of being left by myself and preparing ‘pasta l’orange’ last night when I spilt Grace’s juice on dinner) I seem to be coping. Please bear with me though if it takes a little longer to respond to emails/messages etc than would normally be the case. I’m sure I’ll survive until Wednesday though and then everything will be back to normal!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Ticking along nicely

10th September
It's always nice when office work is interrupted by a Red-backed Shrike just outside the window.
A relatively quiet spell as westerly winds kicked in (and were rather strong by 10th), although a Fair Isle ‘quiet spell’ can still see a few good birds and so it proved, with new arrivals on 9th lead by a Barred Warbler at Schoolton and Red-backed Shrike at Field Ditch and 10th headlined by an elusive (but quite vocal) Little Bunting at the Chalet (our earliest autumn arrival since 1997) and an Icterine Warbler near South Harbour. The Subalpine Warbler was still present to 9th at least, whilst other lingerers included Red-backed Shrike at the Obs (so two were present on the island on 9th-10th), 2 Common Rosefinch still at Kenaby and Lapland Buntings (which increased to 10 on 9th). A Pintail on Utra scrape briefly on 10th and 2 Little Stints on the same day were also worthy of note, but mostly the last couple of days have seen a decrease in most migrants, with only a few dozen Wheatears remaining and Meadow Pipits down to a ‘mere’ 363 yesterday. Today has started calm and with drizzle, it’s not ideal conditions, but the first Yellow-browed Warbler of the year pitched up on Shetland yesterday and there could well be one or two birds lurking out there today.

Monday, 9 September 2013

8th September

8th September
Several people have asked about Storm Petrel ringing recently. After discussions last month with the BTO, it was agreed that we would continue to catch Storm Petrels no more than once a week (and without the Swinhoe’s tape being played) for the duration of the normal Storm Petrel season. Now that we have got to the second week of September that season has come to an end, so there will be no more Storm Petrel ringing sessions this year. We hope that all visitors to the island this autumn will understand and respect our statement on this, which has been agreed in consultation with the BTO Ringing Unit and Chair of Ringing Committee.

Now for the bird news: there is no news. Well, that’s not strictly true but, although the autumn is well and truly upon us, it is fair to say that yesterday was not quite what we were hoping for. Don’t get me wrong, it was a very pleasant day’s birding, but there were seemingly few new arrivals despite the apparently good conditions.
I was fortunate enough to be in South-west census, which seemed to hold the bulk of the limited number of migrants, but the totals for the whole island were fairly scant with just 2 Redstart (the first of the month), 3 Willow Warbler, 2 Blackcap, 4 Garden Warbler, 2 Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, 3 Spotted Flycatcher, 3 Whinchat, 3 Pied Flycatcher, 3 Swallow and 6 Siskin. There was also an increase in alba Wagtails, Wheatear, Meadow Pipit (690), Rock Pipit (111) and Twite (238).
Some migrants had increased in numbers slightly, such as Spotted Flycatchers, but generally it was surprisingly thin pickings.
The highlights were mostly lingering birds, with a Red-backed Shrike still at the Obs, Subalpine Warbler still at North Shirva, 4 Common Rosefinch (one up on the previous day) and 9 Lapland Buntings.
Technically, the bird of the day was Little Stint (the first of the year), with birds seen at North Haven, Barkland and South Light (although possibly just one individual was involved in all the sightings).
The long-staying Subalpine Warbler (it first arrived on 5th July and is now the longest-staying Subalp in Fair Isle history) has now started showing a bit better, usually around North Shirva. It has comfortably outstripped the stay of even 'Albi' the eastern Subalp, who remained at the Obs for around 5 weeks in spring 2011.
A small number of Common Rosefinches are now roaming the island. 
The other birds of note were the first Red-breasted Merganser for a while, a blue Fulmar circling in Grey Geo and the 2 Tree Sparrow that have been with us for the whole summer (although sadly there is no sign of any youngsters!).
The clear waters around Fair Isle attract a few people in for a swim
As we’re into westerly winds now, it seems likely that it will remain quiet for a while, but one of the great things about birding Fair Isle is that you just never know…

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Here we go...?

7th September
A relatively quiet day on 6th was enlivened by an Arctic Warbler at Pund which proved to be the third individual of this species in three days! The other highlights of the day were a Red-backed Shrike at the Mast that was presumed to be the same bird that was seen later at Field ditch and three Common Rosefinch, with one at the Obs and two together at Midway (one at Shirva was presumed to be one of these two, but could possibly have been a fourth bird). The Subalpine Warbler was also still present, whilst a Merlin was newly arrived.

The Arctic Warbler at Pund showed a lot better than the somewhat elusive bird the previous day on the cliffs near North Light. Plumage details indicate that this was a new bird (and yesterday's individual seemed to have an injured right wing).
Bird movement started early on 7th, when at least 4 Greylag were calling so noisily as they circled the Obs at 1.45am they woke every staff member on the east side of the staff corridor! By the start of census though, the strong North wind had brought light drizzle and poor visibility as fog dropped over the hills, with very few birds noted. In the South-east census area I had managed brief views of a Common Rosefinch at Burkle and a Whitethroat at Haa, but otherwise was completely migrant-free, with similar stories from South-west and North. Combined with a cack-handed attempt at jumping a ditch in Boini Mire that left me with boots full of water and dropping my notebook down the cliffs of Meoness (where it thankfully landed in a rescue-able area of the South Harbour beach), it seemed like one of those days. A Siskin coming in off the sea at Klinger’s Geo raised hopes that things were about to kick off (I was desperate for any positive signs!) and when I ran the Gully trap on the way back to the Obs there was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Red-backed Shrike, Blackcap and 2 Siskins in there! As the wind eased and the fog eventually lifted in the late afternoon, it became clear that this wasn’t a remarkably localised fall; there were migrants starting to appear around the island. An hour or so chekcing the crofts before dinner produced: 14 Willow Warbler, 5 Garden Warbler, 4 Blackcap, 3 Whitethroat, 3 Whinchat, 2 Spotted Flycatcher and 9 Siskin, whilst another Common Rosefinch around the traps may have been newly arrived.
This Blyth’s Reed Warbler was a surprise find in the Gully, although it has now occurred for five consecutive autumns on Fair Isle, with this bird being about the 35th for the island (subject to acceptance and the acceptance of a couple other birds still under consideration).
With the wind now in the east and tomorrow looking set to be a pleasant day with the wind still from the right direction, there is a real sense of anticipation buzzing around the Obs tonight, so let’s see what happens…

Friday, 6 September 2013

Arctics on a Roll

5th September
Another pleasant day's birding, with the North grabbing the lion's share of the best new birds. Top of the pile was an Arctic Warbler on the cliffs between North Light and Kirn o'Skroo (on a section of cliff that, remarkably, seems not to have an official name - although North Hol o' Kristal Kame would probably be close). Richard discovered this elusive beasty just before lunch and, although it could go missing for long periods, it showed well at times. Crucially, it showed well enough that the abscence of a ring was noted - so it was obviously not the previous day's bird.
Two Barred Warblers in the North (including a showy bird at the Obs) were also new in, whilst the day's roll call also included Corncrake (flushed from Furse, so another one for Richard in the North!), Common Rosefinch (at the Obs), the male Western Subalpine Warbler (I think they're just about split now...), 2 Icterine Warblers (Double Dyke and Stackhoull), 4 Lapland Buntings and a Wood Warbler at Upper Stoneybrek (the first of the autumn).
Counts of some migrants increased slightly with 4 Blackcap, 2 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Whitethroat, 3 Sedge Warbler, 5 Pied Flycatcher,  5 Cormorant, Kestrel and Woodpigeon all noted, whilst the impressive Meadow Pipit passage of the last week or so saw numbers rise to 976 today! There were also 9 Storm Petrels seen from the Good Shepherd (in Fair Isle waters).
The prediction for the east coast to keep a look out seems to have been a reasonable one as the Farne Islands scored a Yellow-breasted Bunting (see photos here), reminding me of the last bird there in 2003, which I missed as it turned up on the day I was travelling back to the islands from holiday. Formerly a 'Fair Isle special', with virtually annual records (there was only one blank year in the 1980s and 1990s), the decreasing European population has seen records drop off alarmingly and, since 1999, there have only been records on Fair Isle in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Another factor that may have had an impact on Fair Isle records are the much smaller number of oat crops grown on the island now, making an YBBs that do turn up harder to track down. The Obs crop strips have not grown well this year (seemingly a combination of weather and Rock Doves), but we do have some left over seed that we'll be broadcasting amongst them this afternoon to see if we can lure one of these stripy beauties for ourselves.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Cheeky Arctic Monkey

4th September
When I was birding on the east coast, I remember that any spells of good weather in the autumn always seemed to strike Shetland (and Fair Isle in particular) a day or two before they reached us; a fall on Shetland always made things seem more promising for the next morning’s birding. If that’s still the case, then gird your bins for a potentially rather interesting weekend. With easterly winds set to kick in from Friday, we were hoping that maybe a bird or two might get pushed ahead of them and arrive on Thursday (when the forecast is for very light north-westerlies), but things seem to have started earlier than we expected.
Common Rosefinch on Wednesday at North Light was the pick of the new birds for the day, seemingly swept along on the never ending supply of Meadow Pipits that are pouring south at the moment (around 100 were counted from the Good Shepherd as it made its way to Grutness yesterday for example), but today saw a notable (albeit small) arrival of birds.
The Obs Icterine Warbler,which showed well outside the library all day.
The day started with an Icterine Warbler at the Obs (with the lingering bird still at Midway), and quickly stepped up a notch with an Arctic Warbler in the Gully just after breakfast. A BB rarity (for now at least) on not especially promising conditions (a brisk southerly wind following days of westerlies) as one of the first birds of the day – nice. A Corncrake in the Plantation was also good, whilst a Common Rosefinch at Lower Stonybrek may have been yesterday’s bird relocating down the island. The first Lapland Bunting of the autumn was on the airstrip and other migrants either appeared for the first time in the month or increased in numbers, with 20 Willow Warbler, 5 Garden Warbler, 2 Sedge Warbler, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat, Grasshopper Warbler, 7 Whinchat, 3 Pied Flycatcher, Tree Pipit, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and 8 Swallow. Also increasing were Meadow Pipits, with 913 (exactly!) counted on census.
The supercillium stopping short of the nostrils, large bill, mottled ear coverts, prominent square wingbar on the greater coverts, second wing bar on the median coverts and dusky underparts are all  useful identification features of this classic Arctic Warbler. Wing, bill length and bill depth measurements also fell outside the range of Greenish Warbler, in this particularly robust individual.
Hopefully it’s a promising taster of things to come, I suspect there’ll be a few more good birds (and hopefully good counts of common migrants) to report soon – and a few more things arriving down the east coast as well. Good luck and enjoy it!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Early September update.

3rd September (early am update)
The second Swinhoe's Petrel was retrapped again last night, when weather conditions were good for catching petrels. This was the first ringing session since the night of 16th/17th August, and was carried out following the guidelines from the BTO. Only Storm and Leach's Petrel tapes were used, at our usual site. After about an hour, and after catching 8 Storm Petrels, the Swinhoe's was caught. At that point, and again following the BTO's guidelines, trapping operations ceased - the tape was turned off and the net furled. The Swinhoe's Petrel was processed and released quickly; no photos were taken. As agreed with the BTO, we have contacted them to report the recapture, and we are now waiting for further guidance. Until we have that there will unfortunately be no more petrel ringing sessions.

Our third Citrine Wagtail of the year was found in strong westerly winds at Easter Lother Water on 31st (although it was probably heard at Wirvie the day before during a day of alba wagtail passage, when 107 were counted) and was still present to 2nd. Other highlights included the Thrush Nightingale, which relocated to Schoolton and remained to 30th, the Icterine Warbler which continued to show well at Stackhoull until 2nd, Corncrake sightings on 30th and 31st and a Common Rosefinch still on 29th.
With the weather conditions over the last few days generally rather unpleasant, other than a brief break yesterday evening, there have not been a lot of new arrivals with most passerine migrants being lingering birds (including over 600 Meadow Pipits, although some southerly passage of this species was still being observed). Some new things did sneak through, with 7 Crossbill (30th), a Sedge Warbler and Woodpigeon (both 30th), whilst Tree Pipits peaked at 6 on 29th when there were also 29 Swallows.
The westerly gales brought another fresh pulse of waders and wildfowl to the island with the undoubted highlight being the three Pintail that flew east past South Light amongst a small group of Wigeon on 1st. Although an annual visitor to Fair Isle in very small numbers, these were the first I’d managed to connect with, so it was well worth spending 90 minutes in the back of the Transit (the preferred seawatching location when it’s raining so hard you could drown standing up) with Richard! Other counts included up to 45 Teal, 33 Wigeon and 4 Greylag, with a Tufted Duck seen on 1st.
Seawatching was otherwise fairly quiet, although there were 3 Sooty Shearwater on 31st, 5 Storm Petrels seen from the Good Shepherd on 29th (with a rare diurnal land-based sighting from Buness on 31st) and a ‘blue’ Fulmar on 29th. There were also small numbers of Kittiwakes offshore, along with 3 Arctic Terns (1st) and another arrival of Lesser Black-backed Gulls to the island, peaking at 47 on 1st.
There were no rare waders discovered (yet), but counts included up to 5 Black-tailed Godwit, 4 Ruff, 45 Golden Plover and singles of Knot, Greenshank and Whimbrel. There was also a peak of 8 Grey Heron (30th).
One of the most impressive sights of the period was a day of multiple cetacean sightings on 30th. The initial call of ‘dolphins, distantly off Buness’ got people running out the Obs and the speed picked up a bit when 5 magnificent Killer Whales, including three huge bulls, surfaced a bit further out (it was especially pleasing for those visitors whose plane was delayed and were therefore able to see these special cetaceans, rather than just flying over Buness on their way home wondering what the crowd was looking at). The dolphins came closer and revealed themselves to be 40 White-beaked Dolphins and by the end of the day, there were another 2 White-beaked Dolphins seen, along with Minke Whale and 4 Porpoise.
Causing a splash. Some of the White-beaked Dolphins hunting off Buness.
After another morning of mizzly fog, things are starting to brighten up and, with White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers found yesterday in Shetland, we’re hopeful there’ll be something to be found out there soon...

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