One intriguing bird was a Lesser Whitethroat: the confiding bird in the photos below. This had been ringed by the Obs, but apparently thought to be curricula, given that its subspecies was never mentioned. Whilst we failed to get a shot of its tail pattern, the general plumage tones strongly suggested blythi to our team. One to investigate.
A young male Bluethroat was my first in Britain since 1994, but it took me some time to pin down – and even then I only shot one frame before it bounced out of sight along the stone wall at Pund. It eventually ended up in a mistnet, so we enjoyed it in the hand, and was subsequently relocated on the cliffs north of the Obs where it pranced around on a grassy ridge.
The list of other scarce migrants was impressive. Locals were most excited about the first Rose-coloured Starling for a few years; I was pleasantly surprised at how striking my first juvenile was (if one dimensional), and now rather regret exhibiting disdain at searching for one in Porthgwarra last October. We saw this bird a few times with starlings and sheep in the Haa area.
But drag myself away from the seabirds I did, and joined the team in giving Fair Isle a good going over. With more than fair results – even if there were no UK ticks for me at least. Granted, we failed to find the three best birds, but we found the fourth-best and plenty of scarce padders. For the first two days, there was potential in the air – and we felt that the blocker could be round the next corner/in the next ditch/under the next garden shrubbery. We first fretted then regaled in one of the classic Fair Isle experiences. We took some decent photographs – and plenty more record shots.
Pick of the bunch was undeniably a Lanceolated Warbler, aka Lancey. We were wandering sluggishly towards the Observatory when Chris Dodds pulled up in the Observatory minibus. “You’re going the wrong way”, he observed calmly, “if you want to see a Lancey”. Fifteen minutes later, we were enjoying blinding views of this creature – half-mouse, half-Locustella – as it clamboured in and out of a short section of dry-stone wall at Midway. It was special. We were privileged.
I had been warned by a Fair Isle regular that any deviation from the widespread rough grassland and heathery moorland comprised habitat that could hold birds. It was nevertheless astonishing how little such ‘habitat’ there was overall, and how teeny the patches were. This slideshow demonstrates the point.
For about 30 years, I have dreamed of visiting Fair Isle. The same was true of a gaggle of birding mates, and thus a plan was hatched. Only two of our group of nine had previous on Fair Isle: Guy was briefly assistant warden and Durwyn had visited twice. The rest of us were virgins. (Clockwise from top left: Ade Long, Richard 'Stitch' Johnson, me, Durwyn Liley, Joe Tobias, Stu Butchart, Guy Dutson, Dave Gandy & Roger Barnes.)
With the approach of heinous winds and weather forecast, we had to make the tough decision to leave Fair Isle a day ahead of schedule, on 25th. None of us wanted to leave: after two BBs and a sackful of scarce in under 120 hours, we were just getting to grips with how to bird the island and unveil its avian vagabonds. We felt thwarted, our coitus interrupted, and nervous about what those remaining on the hallowed isle might discover.
Yellow-browed Warblers were regular. We probably managed up to four a day, and found a few of those – notably on cliffs.
A flyover Richard’s Pipit made up the scarce pipit trio – even if it wasn’t the third member we wanted (i.e. Pechora). Probably three Scarlet Rosefinches travelled widely around the southern crofts, so we kept bumping into them. A Red-breasted Flycatcher showed briefly at the Obs on our first day. Stitch was the only one of us to catch up with the Short-toed Lark. I had the poorest views of anyone of our fifth Little Bunting of the trip – but still rather liked the quasi-urban birding feel of my photograph. At least one Barred Warbler was around: this bird managed to hide in an iris bed barely two metres long, unseen and stationary, for a full ten minutes.
A personal highlight was repeated and prolonged views, at close range, of an adult Red-throated Pipit, which favoured a small potato field near Setter. I last saw one of these in the UK back in 1996 or so, since when it appears to have become substantially rarer on the mainland at least.
This was a quintessential Fair Isle experience: something hard to experience elsewhere. A score of observers watching a Siberian rarity offering outstanding views at close range. Here is a sense of the ‘twitch’: check out the nervous concentration on faces!
Accordingly, we scanned sparse vegetation on sheer cliffs for warblers (best birds: Bluethroat and Yellow-browed Warblers), waded through the marshes of Da Water in the hope of flushing a Lanceolated Warbler or Great Snipe (best bird: Jack Snipe), yomped up hillsides and scanned cultivated fields (best bird: Red-throated Pipit), pushed constantly at any tract of vegetation to see what came out, walked along kilometres of stone walls and fencelines (best bird: you’ll have to wait for the next post), hovered outside gardens waiting for a flicker of wing or tail (ditto).
One essential part of Fair Isle that I had somehow failed to appreciate in advance was the breeding seabirds. Perhaps I had thought the season would be over; perhaps I simply hadn't thought. Whatever, for a wannabee vagrant-finder, I spent far too many hours gazing in awe at flocks of 60 or more Bonxies lounging on the moorland, at young Fulmars taking their first flights, and at the still-impressive Gannet colonies. And, you know what... I wouldn't have had it any other way.
We had a full week booked, but inclement weather unfortunately knocked off a day at either end. (Whilst this was a crying shame, we made up for it on mainland Shetland both before and after Fair Isle.) Birding Fair Isle is like nothing I have previously experienced – meaning that I have plenty of material for an article that Bird Watchingmagazine has commissioned me to write. It is hard work: lots of trudging, pishing and waiting by empty gardens. But even a poor day on the island is much better than a good day on the English east coast! We all fell in love with this remote island, and were soon mooting a return trip.
And now for some really common stuff. When there was nothing else to photograph, let's be honest, I papped whatever approached me. I am a tart like that. Or addicted to the sound of my (fake) shutter release. Twite were a favourite; lovely finchy things. Meadow and Rock Pipits were other regular subjects. Ditto Skylark and Chiffchaff. But I only managed the odd frame of a Shetland/Fair Isle Wren and 'Shetland' Starling.
A notch down in scarcity were Jack Snipe (of which we flushed up to five a day) and Lapland Bunting (similar numbers). Most frustrating was a Locustella that I watched flying between stone walls at Lower Leogh. Radioing it out, most of the crew arrived within minutes – but the bird didn’t show again. Twenty-four hours later and under 100m away, the Lancey was found – behaving in identical fashion. I was bricking it that I had ballsed up finding the Lancey, but once I had obtained flight views of the latter, I was confident that my shorter-tailed, longer-winged, paler-brown bird was a Grasshopper Warbler. Phew!
Our best find was unequivocal – and all the better for the whole team conspiring to be involved. We all coincided at Quoy one afternoon, just as Durwyn flushed a long-tailed bird to which he couldn’t immediately put a name. We all sensed that Durs just knew it was something good, and joined him in an organized flush. And up it flew, with a speeee-ohhh from a dark-backed pipit with white underparts and a striking head pattern. “OBP!!”, Dave and I exclaimed almost simultaneously. And so it was: Olive-backed Pipit. A most pleasing find tick for us all, this bird was largely elusive but occasionally showed very well indeed… until a croft cat munched it. A sad end.
The next-rarest bird found (indeed, the only other BB rarity) was another typical Fair Isle vagrant: Arctic Warbler. We kicked ourselves for not having found this ourselves (Ross Ahmed did that job for us), but consoled ourselves with splendid views of this chunky, short-tailed, large-headed Phyllosc as it ranged around the southern part of the island one day.