Thursday, 30 May 2013

Spring birding in Style.

30th May
Whilst the 28th saw a similar spread of birds around, it was livened up by a Honey Buzzard found by visiting ex-Warden Paul Harvey, although unfortunately it was only seen for a short time as it left Malcolm’s Head and headed north-west. The question of whether I can count the raptor shaped dot I saw from Chalet as it circled high away from Hoini as Honey Buzzard on my Fair Isle list is maybe best left to me and my conscience.
Amongst all the raptors of recent days, the only one I manged to see (properly at least) were the Peregrines. The chicks on the west coast are doing well (where a SNH supported Ranger-led walk showed the nest to interested visitors and islanders this week) and the adults are regularly seen around the island.
The pleasant weather continued to the 29th (although a slightly fresher northerly breeze picked up) and an increase in migrants brought several more highlights and some excellent all-round birding, with lots of happy faces in the bar at Log (and a few welcome 'clinks' heard from a rapidly filling Tick Tin!). Chief amongst these were the two Thrush Nightingales found in the early afternoon only a few hundred yards away from each other at Haa and Utra. Also up there in the bird of the day stakes were a Hobby (the first since 2011) seen briefly as it whizzed overhead and our first Common Rosefinch of the year at various gardens in the south. The latter species did rather open its account for the year in style with the bird in question being a fine red male, which was singing at Schoolton later in the day. Adding to the raptor theme was an Osprey (and a new Sparrowhawk), whilst an Icterine Warbler was also new (and also singing at Schoolton). A small arrival of warblers had obviously taken place and, as well as the lingering Blyth’s Reed Warbler there was (finally) our first Reed Warbler of the year and counts of 3 Marsh Warbler, 9 Whitethroat, 8 Garden Warbler, 7 Willow Warbler and 6 Lesser Whitethroat.
Other scarce migrants included 6 Red-backed Shrikes (the same number as on 28th, although how many birds have passed through in three weeks of almost daily sightings is unclear), 2 Bluethroats and Grey-headed Wagtail (with 2 on 28th), whilst other species of note included Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, 3 Redwing, 10 Spotted Flycatcher, 5 Redstart, Whinchat, 2 Pied Flycatcher, 2 Tree Sparrows (still) and 11 Snow Bunting, whilst Water Rail and Green Sandpiper were also noted.
An unusual late-spring influx of Snow Buntings has also been noted elsewhere in the Northern Isles. These two were at Kenaby today.
The 30th started fairly brightly, but fog set in thickly later and little new was noted, although Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 2 Marsh Warblers, 4 Red-backed Shrikes (one of which was seen coming in off the sea at South Harbour) and a Grey-headed Wagtail were still present. A potentially murky couple of days combined with a light westerly wind will not encourage any big falls (but might not stop a big rarity), but lighter SW winds, followed by a day or two of easterlies early next week could prove interesting. I’m sure this spring isn’t finished yet.
Although Kittiwakes finally started nest building yesterday, the season is shaping up to be a poor one for the breeding seabirds. Crumbs of comfort amongst the breeding birds have included the Peregrines, whilst a singing Blackbird at the Obs is apparently part of a pair, raising hopes that the Obs garden may have its first ever bird nesting in it! Other migrants on the way through have had a bit of a sing or display to break up their journey, with Whimbrel and Red-backed Shrike getting romantic in the recent sunshine.

Monday, 27 May 2013

It's never too early for a rare.

27th May

Not a bad start to the day! The first bird I saw on looking out the office window at 7am was this Blyth's Reed Warbler. Only the 9th spring record for Fair Isle (there have been around 24 in the autumn as well), it went on to show well from the Dining room for all the guests. The strong SE winds today certainly delivered, although aside from this bird, there were few new migrants seen aside from four Crossbills at Gunnawark. I suspect as the wind drops over the next couple of days,more will be found.
A good run of Bluethroats recently saw three present yesterday, including two new arrivals, one of which (this female) was caught in the Obs mistnets. Two males were present today, including one new bird.
Marsh Warblers increased to 3 yesterday, with one still present today. This bird was trapped on 25th and seen again at the Chalet yesterday. Bizarrely, we've had four Marsh Warblers and a Blyth's Reed Warbler this year, but no Reed Warblers!
Four Red-backed Shrikes on 26th included this long-staying male around the crofts and a new female at the Mast.
At least 3 Red-backed Shrikes were still present today, including this interesting bird, which sported a large white primary patch.
Two of the six Tree Sparrows remain at the Obs (where this one was ringed on 25th). New migrants yesterday included an increase in Chiffchaff (to 8), two Stock Dove, the first Pied Flycatcher for a while and a small arrival of waders including Wood Sandpiper, two Black-tailed Godwits and 5 Common Sandpipers. The first Common Tern of the year arrived on 25th.
A late Lapland Bunting lingered at Da Water until 25th (thanks to Deryk Shaw for the picture)
A pair of Long-tailed Ducks are still present, often close into shore at North Haven, the male looks particularly stunning.
Too little too late? Guillemots have returned to the cliffs in the last few days, but the indications are it could be a total failure for them this year.
It's not all bad news on the breeding bird front, Gannets have chicks as do the Peregrines - the fluffy white heads of the two young Peregrinelets (and yes, I have just made that word up) can be seen here as they are fed by an adult (which is bent down and almost out of view).

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Trap Happy

25th May
What a day. Beautiful, sunny weather and plenty of birds. After a pretty poor spring for the weather, today was calm, sunny and reached 10.7 degrees (although it felt much warmer!). The birds were impressive as well, with morning traps providing us with two Red-backed Shrikes in the hand before breakfast (then a third mist-netted at the Obs), a good start! A flock of six Tree Sparrows then dropped into the Obs garden whilst the shrikes were being ringed (with one of them dropping into the mist net), the first record for the year.

Male Red-backed Shrike, a great little bird.
So we headed off onto census with high hopes, which were quickly met with a female Subalpine Warbler trapped in the Gully. Biometrics suggested the bird was an albistriata, so hopefully DNA analysis will back up the identification as an Eastern bird. The same run of the traps also produced a superb male Bluethroat, a Ring Ouzel (one of seven seen today) and a Common Redpoll, along with a variety of warblers.
The female Subalp in the Gully shortly before capture (I didn't get any pictures in the hand, but I'll borrow someone else's to post tomorrow).
This ringed male Bluethroat at Lower Stoneybrek in the afternoon was presumably the bird caught earlier in the Vaadal.
Although the rest of the day didn’t produce huge numbers of migrants, there were certainly plenty of things to see, with the most obvious migrants being Red-backed Shrikes that increased to seven (including four males), a small increase in warblers (with Lesser Whitethroats reaching 20) and passage of hirundines including 77 Swallows (and the day felt like a Red-rumped Swallow day, but sadly it wasn’t to be).

Assessing Red-backed Shrike numbers is not always easy as they can be rather mobile as they follow fencelines around the island, so the seven counted may have been an underestimate.
Other sightings included a briefly seen female Stonechat, Short-eared Owl, four Collared Dove, and three Robins, with flyovers including Barnacle Goose and Red-throated Diver. Perhaps the most surprising was the increase in Snow Buntings to 47, an unseasonal gathering.
Although Redwings in May are not unusual, this one was in full song at Stackhoull, which is less expected.
The traps had the final say in the day’s good birds, when a Marsh Warbler was caught in the Plantation, making the ringing room a popular destination today.
Sunshine, good company and good birds ensured today was thoroughly enjoyable, and whilst we may lose the sun (and gain a stronger wind) over the next couple of days, we’ll hopefully gain more birds. Late May is the time when migrants can include ‘the biggy’, so we’ll see what tomorrow produces…
A great way to end the day. Grace and I went to watch the Puffins on Roskillie after Log and spent an hour or so in their company.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

24th May

Another mixed week, with westerly winds replaced by a northerly gale on Thursday, then a rather pleasant calm, sunny day on Friday. The westerlies slowed up migration, the northerlies delivered no decent seawatching and the calm weather saw a few new migrants, but with the promise of a pleasant weekend and easterly winds next week, things are looking rather good.
The best bird of the period was undoubtedly the Red-necked Phalarope seen briefly in Mid Geo on 23rd by one lucky observer before heading west and not being relocated. Other good birds included female Bluethroat (to 21st) with a new male on 24th at Kenaby, Red-backed Shrikes daily (with 5 on 21st the peak count and 4 still today), Icterine Warbler (in Field ditch on 24th), Waxwing (until 23rd), Lapland Bunting (daily until 24th) and Long-eared Owl (21st-24th). Other promising signs of forthcoming migrants included an increase of Lesser Whitethroats (to 8 on 24th), so I’m sure there’ll be more to come in the next few days.
More birds from recent days included a raptor-fest on 20th involving Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Merlin, a lingering pair of breeding-plumaged Long-tailed Ducks in Furse then North Haven, Redwing (23rd-24th), Crossbill (23rd) and an arrival of 15 Snow Buntings on 23rd, with 12 still on 24th. Wheatears increased to 136 on 24th, with many of them being Greenland race birds (fairly obvious in the field, but also confirmed by several trapped birds whose measurements confirmed the subspecific identification).
The seawatching highlight was a ‘blue’ Fulmar on 23rd; it’s fair to say that Fair Isle is not renowned for its seawatching, but still, to miss out on the influx of Long-tailed Skuas that everyone else seems to have enjoyed seems a bit harsh. Several hours effort were put in by several observers during the strong winds of 22nd-23rd, with nothing to show for it other than a few Arctic Terns heading north. The messages from various colleagues in conservation around the country keeping us updated on their sightings didn’t help, and the news that four Long-tails had flown over the Tingwall airstrip (where planes to Fair Isle leave Shetland from) were the final confirmation that we’re doomed never to cash in on spring skua passage (so at least I have played my part in the FIBO tradition of every Warden thinking there really must be skuas visible from somewhere on the island, before being disappointed).
However, it’s not like Fair Isle doesn’t get enough other birds, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty of compensation, hopefully starting with the promising conditions forecast for the next few days. One unexpected visitor that could potentially be heading our way is Iago Sparrow! For those of you who didn’t hear about it, a group of 11 of these Cape Verde endemics boarded the M/V Plancius off Raso, with 7 jumping ship at Madeira, but 2 pairs staying onboard until the ship reached the Netherlands. As far as I can tell, they seem fairly settled on the ship there, which is where it gets interesting… The next voyage of the M/V Plancius takes it to Spitsbergen via Aberdeen and Fair Isle, where it is due to arrive on 12th June. They probably won’t be tickable (although if they aren’t ‘deliberately’ fed from the Netherlands to British waters, does that mean they’d be countable, it’s like the ‘phases of play’ in the offside rule), but what if the rules change in the future? And surely they’d still be countable for your world list if you did see them? Anyway, it’s been a chance for a few interesting hypothetical conversations during recent stormy weather (and if they did stay aboard until they reached Fair Isle, I'm sure there'd be plenty more conversations about them). And before anyone accuses me of trying to drum up visitors for the Obs, although we've got a room free for the first week of June, we're fully booked for the 12th already!

Monday, 20 May 2013

Foggy Chorus

20th May (am)
Yesterday’s efforts were hampered by fog in the North of the island, but it cleared from the south later making for some very pleasant conditions. There were certainly some birds in and, combined with the lingering highlights, it was a very enjoyable day’s birding (unless you were having to do it all by ear in the North) and almost barbeque weather by the evening, in what has been a poor spring for warm, calm days. Hopefully that means we’re owed a good summer…

A Painted Lady at Shirva was the first butterfly of the year, with Silver-y and several Diamond-back Moths also seen.
The birding highlight was a fine male Rustic Bunting found by the Hill Dyke, although it proved rather elusive and only showed to a few lucky folk. A few more migrants were around and there were counts of three Red-backed Shrikes (including a new male at Midway), and three Bluethroats (including a new male at Haa and a female at Burkle). Most common migrants showed a slight increase in numbers (with 43 Tree Pipits for example) and scarcities still present included the Ortolan, Marsh Warbler, Wryneck, Waxwing, 5 Grey-headed Wagtails and Black Redstart. A Wood Sandpiper on Da Water could have been the bird from two days ago, whilst 14 Whimbrel were logged in what has been a good spring for them and two Long-tailed Ducks were in Furse.
A fine male Grey-headed Wagtail.
The first Gannet chick was seen at Guidicum, but other seabirds are still noticeably not getting down to breeding, although at least 65 Arctic Terns were present by the evening.
The pleasant sound of a Tirrick flock filled the calm air of South Harbour as birds came into roost. 
Today sees more fog, which could be set to linger, and the day has started with a somewhat mixed serenade of a fine singing Blackbird (which has been holding territory at the Obs for a week or so now, raising hopes of a repeat of 2011’s successful breeding) and a teething baby (what a way to start your first birthday!). With new birds seemingly arriving yesterday afternoon, there’ll hopefully by a few more sightings today and the fog may at least have kept the Rustic Bunting around, so hopefully that may prove more cooperative today.
The Red-backed Shrike at Midway wasn't found until the evening, raising hopes of more birds to be discovered today.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Northerly winds, but still more birds.

19th May (am)
Puffins were on land en-masse on 17th for most of the day, after unpredictable appearances so far this year. Attempts to access the monitoring plot at Greenholm have so far been scuppered by the weather, but there's plenty time to catch up on what's happening there and find out how the breeding season is going for them.
With the wind getting more of a northerly element, the bulk of migrants were present in smaller numbers but there were still more highlights getting through in what is always one of the most enjoyable birding periods of the year. The 17th saw new highlights of an Icterine Warbler (an elusive bird at Da Water), two or three male Bluethroats (including a showy bird at the South Harbour), a Wryneck (trapped in the Gully, so presumably not the lingering South Harbour bird), Wood Sandpiper (the second of the spring on Da Water) and a Cuckoo. There were also still five Grey-headed Wagtails, the Ortolan at South Harbour, the Red-breasted Flycatcher (that reappeared in North Haven) and a Waxwing.
A smart drake Long-tailed Duck in Furse on 17th was found whilst repeatedly scanning for any sign of the presumed Pacific Diver seen on Shetland the previous day (and last reported heading south off Grutness!).
The wind increased from the North again on 18th, with classic 'having to pedal to get downhill' reported from cycling staff and birding becoming increasingly difficult as most birds kept their heads down (or immediately disappearing half a mile down the island if they took off and caught the wind). Surprisingly, there were still new birds found, with the pick of the bunch being Fair Isle's earliest ever Marsh Warbler at Shirva. Two female Red-backed Shrikes included at least one new bird and two Snow Buntings were the first of their species to be seen for a while, whilst a male Bluethroat at Wirvie Burn may have been new. Other sightings included the Ortolan, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Waxwing, Wryneck, a Long-eared Owl, two Sparrowhawks and 12 Whimbrel.
Gannets are one of the few seabirds that seem to be getting fully into the swing of things. Although Guillemot, Razorbill and Shag eggs have all been seen, most of the colonies seem to be progressing slowly. It could be another poor breeding season for the seabirds unless something happens soon.
Arctic Skuas finally started appearing on their breeding sites during the last few days, but most days have seen counts of just nine or ten.
You aint seen me, right? Breeding waders are progressing, with the first Lapwing chicks seen on 17th, whilst most other species are incubating (including this well hidden Snipe).
Today feels quite rare, although thick fog has so far hampered birding, but no doubt there'll be more to report later today...

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Unfeigned Melody

16th May
Well, today certainly lived up to the expectation of the early morning trap round (see the previous blog post), with a great selection of birds including the peak counts so far this year for several species.
The best bird was a Melodious Warbler found in the afternoon at Chalet, the 18th for Fair Isle. Other highlights included the first Bluethroat of the year (a female at the School), the Ortolan (still at South Harbour), 5 Grey-headed Wagtails, Hawfinch (a female still at the Haa), Red-backed Shrike (male still at Boini Mire), Waxwing (looking rather out of place feeding on the grass at the base of Malcolm’s Head), Osprey, Long-eared Owl (at the Chalet), Yellowhammer and Swift (the first since the very early bird in April).
The Melodious Warbler was the first May record for Fair Isle (the earliest of the five previous spring records was 6th June) and the earliest for Shetland. 

The 5 Grey-headed Wagtails seen today were all smart males.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the day though was the first really decent fall, which wasn’t huge, but still brought the peak counts of the year for several species including 45 Tree Pipit, 36 Willow Warbler, 25 Garden Warbler, 13 Whitethroat, 8 Sedge Warbler, 11 Spotted Flycatcher, 13 Redstart and 19 Pied Flycatcher with other counts including 10 Blackcap, 4 Lesser Whitethroat, 3 Grasshopper Warbler, 3 Whinchat and 13 Whimbrel.
Combined with the sunshine and generally pleasant conditions and it was a rather good day all in all. Although more northerly winds are set to arrive soon, they are hopefully going to contain enough of an easterly element to bring us even more birds, Red-throated Pipit is my prediction.

Looking good...

16th May (am)
This morning has seen the third consecutive day of Osprey sightings, but the previous two day's birds have both been seen heading out to sea from North Light.
The 15th saw a slight increase in migrant numbers and a pleasing roll-call of lingering birds. New birds included Icterine Warbler, Hawfinch, Wood Warbler, Yellowhammer and Pomarine Skua (from the Good Shepherd), whilst an Osprey was presumably also new, the previous day's bird having been seen leaving from North Light with a strong tailwind. Still present were the Ortolan, Wryneck, Red-backed Shrike, Iceland Gull and Waxwing.
Wryneck in South Harbour (with an out of focus Scandinavian Rock Pipit in the foreground)
The wind continued to increase from the east and heavy rain set in later in the afternoon, curtailing birding for the day, but so far this morning things look promising. Trap round produced nine birds (including Redstart, 2 Sedge Warblers, Whitethroat and Blackcap), whilst several other migrants were seen around the traps. Garden Warblers in the Obs Garden have increased to at least four, whilst two Grey-headed Wagtails and an Osprey were also seen this morning.
There'll be more to report later today I hope.
Turnstone and kelp flys in South Harbour - an excellent place for migrants when the flies are hatching.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Whales prevails through gales and hails.

14th May
Well, maybe not quite gales, but it was certainly a strong southerly wind which, when combined with the occasional driving hail shower, made for unpleasant viewing conditions at times. A Waxwing graced the Obs garden a couple of times today, an Osprey flew north from the North Light during the early afternoon (and probably took very little time to get to Shetland given the wind!) and an immature Iceland Gull was seen a couple of times around the south, but otherwise there were very few new migrants to report, although the Red-breasted Flycatcher was still in the North Haven area and the Ortolan was seen again in the south of the island.
It's been a good spring for Waxwing sightings, not a surprise really given the number that arrived in the country last autumn.
Sighting of the day though belonged to the pod of seven Killer Whales which were first seen off Wester Lother, when they passed behind the stacks before heading past North Light then rounding Buness and heading south. Thankfully, a lot of the Obs staff, guests, islanders and other visitors to the island were able to catch at least a glimpse of them as messages pinged around the island tracking their progress.
Becki made it onto Buness in time to catch up with the Orcas as they passed close by and managed to get a couple of great pictures.
It's just as well Becki finally got round to unpacking her camera yesterday - great pictures Becki and thanks for letting us use them on the blog.
We’re still hoping that the easterlies that have been promised for tomorrow come to pass and that an entertaining few days will continue to improve.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Make Mine a Danish.

13th May
A brisk SSW wind saw few new arrivals, although the first Garden Warbler of the year was found at the Haa amongst a small increase in warbler numbers. A Black-tailed Godwit was at Barkland before joining the Oystercatcher flock at Shirva, but otherwise there were very few new additions to the Log. The Red-breasted Flycatcher had relocated to the Obs garden and two Red-backed Shrikes (the male at Chalet and a female still roaming the Boini Mire and surrounding area) were still present as were two Short-eared Owls. A juvenile Swallow (presumably the bird seen earlier in the week) was found dead in one of the buildings at North Haven, a sad end of for a bird that had already had a remarkable life, wherever it had come from.
Three Common ('Mealy') Redpolls have been caught recently, including this one with a orangey poll.
The species hogging the headlines today though was Bonxie, with early morning traps producing a bird in the Double Dyke trap! It seemed to have been chased into the trap by a resident pair, which were standing guard outside allowing it to be caught. Surprisingly, it was found to be wearing a Danish ring, perhaps indicating it was a bird ringed in the Faroes. It seemed in good condition, with no obvious injuries and the typical feistiness in the hand of an adult Bonxie, but sadly it was found dead later – it will be sent off for analysis, which will hopefully establish a cause of death. On a happier note for the species, the first Bonxie egg was noted today on Hoini, as the seabird breeding season continues to slowly get going.
Welcome back! The first Bonxie egg of the year is defended in typically robust fashion by one of the parents.
Another day with strong winds from the south is forecast for tomorrow, but Wednesday still looks promising and I’m hopeful we’ll have a few more good birds soon.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Migrant time - on the Dot.

12th May
A Bonxie looks over a misty Fair Isle on 11th, generally the weather has been pleasant of late, with lightish easterly winds and sunshine, although this evening heavy rain has set in and strong SW winds are forecast for tomorrow.
Promising conditions continued, with a steady arrival of new birds, a small fall on 11th and a good selection of scarce migrants today. Bird of the day for me today was the Dotterel on Vaasetter, after missing five previous birds on Fair Isle, it was great to finally get it on my island list.
After missing my first Dotterel on Fair Isle around 7 years ago, it was quite a thrill to scan across Vaasetter today and find this beauty!
Perhaps even better was the male Ortolan on the beach at South Harbour, always good to see as it has not been guaranteed as an annual visitor to Fair Isle in recent years and this was an especially smart bird.
One of my favourite birds, this Ortolan was one of several migrants feeding on the seaweed in South Harbour (it was joined by a Wryneck later, with Pied and Spotted Flycatcher also present).
The compliment of scarcities was added to by a female or first-summer male Red-breasted Flycatcher in North Haven (along with a Wood Warbler), a male Red-backed Shrike at Chalet, a Wryneck at South Harbour (presumably the bird from Utra yesterday) and an Osprey that made a couple of passes over the island.
The cliffs around North Haven held several migrants today, including this Red-breasted Flycatcher - only the second spring record in the last four years.
Two Red-backed Shrikes have been seen this week.
Strangely, apart from the above list, there were actually not that many new birds today, with Sparrowhawk and Pink-footed Goose amongst the few other new species to arrive, whilst Short-eared Owls increased to three.

Other highlights during the last few days included the Thrush Nightingale lingering until the 10th, female Red-backed Shrike around Stackhoull (9th-11th), Wood Sandpiper at Da Water (11th), Hawfinch touring the gardens in the south (10th), Cuckoo at Setter (10th), Long-eared Owl (9th-11th) and the Grey-headed(-type) Wagtail at South Harbour until 10th.

The Thrush Nightingale showed well at times, but was often elusive - here it manages to do a bit of both.
After just one record last year (the worst year for the species in FIBO's history), it was good to see the first Cuckoo of the year this week, even better was when it was trapped in the Vaadal later.
This flava Wagtail lingered for several days in South Harbour. Although presumably a Grey-headed Wagtail, the supercilium is rather prominent, perhaps suggesting the influence of another subspecies somewhere in its genes.
The best day for common migrants was yesterday when totals included: 8 Chiffchaff, 17 Willow Warbler, 5 Blackcap, 8 Lesser Whitethroat, 6 Whitethroat, Grasshopper Warbler, 3 Sedge Warbler, 5 Ring Ouzel, 6 Redstart, 4 Whinchat, 16 Pied Flycatcher, 21 Tree Pipit, 4 Common Sandpiper and 7 Knot.

A good spring count of Pied Flycatchers (the highest since 2009) was mostly made up of smart males.
Several interesting birds have appeared in the traps this week, including a few Redstarts...
... and this Ring Ouzel (on the same trap round).
The breeding season remains slow for the seabirds, although the first Razorbill egg was seen today. Arctic Skuas still number only around ten, whilst Arctic Terns have built up to 15 today after the first was seen on 8th. The best breeding news though is the return of the nesting Peregrines, with a nest on the west cliffs containing at least two chicks.
Tirricks are back, but how will the breeding season for these and other seabirds turn out this year?

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