Wednesday, 30 April 2014


28th-29th April
After the mixed feelings of the 27th, when dipping a 5th for Britain was only partially compensated for by finding another 5th for Britain (I can find reference to records in 1985 in Cornwall, 1993 in Suffolk, 2006 on Shetland and the Scilly bird last autumn, so my previous reference to the Caspian being a 6th for Britain may have been wrong – let me know if you know otherwise) and a fantastic day’s birding, Sunday saw us determined to track down the Cretzschmar’s. We were given fresh hope when checking the references on the previous records saw mention of the fact they were both elusive (and indeed the first bird wasn’t seen for three days after being discovered) and that they often frequented heathery areas and cliff edges. Surely we hadn’t overlooked it yesterday by skimping on coverage of Brecks and the Rippack…? However, against that was the ‘big bird blindness’ that had affected the Wardening team so far, with the literally big birds (Crane, Buzzard and Hen Harrier) all being missed and now being joined by the ‘big bird’ in the more conventional birding sense of the term.
After the planned Tystie survey was abandoned due to fog, the Wardening team swept across the areas less well covered on 27th, but to no effect. Eventually, we decided on the best option being to get back to regular census and hope it would turn up somewhere for us…
Things started well after lunch, when the fog cleared for good and a ringtail Hen Harrier was picked up circling over Ward Hill, perhaps most significantly it was seen by the whole team – the ‘big bird blindness’ had gone, surely that was a good omen! 
The second Hen Harrier of the spring circled over Ward Hill with a few Bonxies, but was generally ignored as it gained height and headed north towards Shetland.
About 15 minutes after receiving a text to that effect from Ciaran, I took a call from Richard, ‘I’ve got the bunting, it’s in the Gilly Burn feeding with a Wryneck’. A smooth scrambling of vehicles and people saw everyone catching up with it shortly afterwards and enjoying great views in the sun of a stonking male Cretzschmar's Bunting. If Deryk’s pictures yesterday had been jaw-dropping, the field views were awesome – it was so blue and orange! A couple of Shetland birders took advantage of the Good Shepherd sailing a day early (to avoid high seas on Tuesday) to get in to the island late on and enjoy great views in Boini Mire for a couple of hours before dusk.  It was present again on 29th, usually in Boini Mire, although it could go missing for periods as it presumably wandered the island again. What a bird and what a great start to the spring!
Cretzschmar's Bunting. An absolute stunner (photo by Roger Riddington).
The general theme for the 28th was of birds lingering, with not much new in: the Caspian Stonechat, Red-breasted Flycatcher, 2 of the Short-toed Larks, Great Grey Shrike, 5 Wryneck, Blue-headed Wagtail and Tree Sparrow all still present, whilst slight increases were noted for Swallow (38), Sand Martin (6), Blackcap (27) and Lesser Whitethroat (6), all enjoyed in the lovely sunshine of a perfect spring afternoon (temperatures soared to about 12 degrees), surely this is one of the best ever spells for April on Fair Isle?
The Caspian Stonechat showing its distinctive tail pattern. Of the four previous records, three were autumn birds, with the only previous spring record being found by Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey at Virkie (just 'up the road' from Fair Isle) in May 2006 (photo by Roger Riddington).
The morning text from Paul Harvey (one of the successful twitchers, along with Roger Riddington) that there was a flighty male Mandarin in South Harbour on 29th was, technically at least, the most significant from a Fair Isle point of view, being only the second island record (the Caspian Stonechat currently languishes as the 42nd Siberian Stonechat for the island, although it would be nice to think there was a chance of a split in the future…) but was dipped by a slightly groggy (the bunting celebrations perhaps going on a little later than ideal) FIBO team. I think it’s safe to say that, nice bird though I’m sure it was, if we were going to miss anything this week, that’s probably the one that we’re least concerned about!
The day went on to produce a similar total to the 28th, with the Cretzschmar’s and Caspian Stonechat both leading the line, and 2 Short-toed Larks, 4 Wrynecks, Great Grey Shrike, Blue-headed Wagtail (with a female flava Wag also present), Tree Sparrow and 2 Iceland Gulls all present, but there were perhaps a few more arrivals, with Short-eared Owl, Goldcrest, 2 Grey Wagtail, 4 Siskin, 12 Reed Buntings, 3 Pink-footed Geese and 35 Purple Sandpipers all new (or increased in numbers), along with a slight rise in Blackbirds and Robins.
Another gratuitous Cretzschmar's Bunting shot. After being so elusive for 24 hours, it showed very well in Boini Mire at times later (photo by Roger Riddington).
The Caspian Stonechat went missing for a large part of 29th, before being seen at Burkle in the afternoon, and adding another species to Deryk's impressive garden list!
There are still reasonable numbers of common migrants around. This Collared Dove was flushed from Dronger before sheltering in Wester Lother. Given the other birds present this week, it's tempting to wonder whether this bird could have come from somewhere in the Middle East and be a 'pioneer', like the birds that first colonised the UK 60 or so years ago. We had news back from the BTO recently that a Collared Dove ringed on Fair Isle in July 2013 was found dead in northern Highland earlier this month.
Small numbers of Snow Buntings are also still scattered around, with the males appearing increasingly monochrome.
 The main surprise was a Little Bunting near Steensi Geo, the first spring record since 2010. With early records of Red-flanked Bluetail (possibly 2), Red-breasted Flycatcher and this, there seems to be some backing of the theory that a good autumn for eastern migrants, followed by a mild winter, may result in records of those species returning north. With north-easterly winds for a day or two yet, will there be more, and what will be next: Olive-backed Pipit? Yellow-browed Warbler? or something even rarer?  It feels like anything is possible at the moment…
It's not all about the rares; the seabird breeding season will shortly be upon us and Puffins are now back in good numbers. Hopefully the birds and weather will coincide to allow us to have a full count of the island population this week, which may give an indication of whether the winter storms have had an effect on our numbers; we recently received news of two more of our birds (ringed as a chick in 1998 and an adult in 2010) found dead in France this winter.


  1. Unbelievable! Only on Fair Isle. Can't believe I can't get up there this year. I'm working on next!


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