Fair Isle and Shetland

8 - 15 September 2001

Shetland extension to 20 September 2001

Neil Arnold , Jamie McMillan , Paul Harvey (extension)


8th September

We met up at Aberdeen, and the flight took us past increasing cloud and over horrendously rough seas.

After landing in Shetland we were told the flight to Fair Isle would be touch and go. We waited in the airport for several half-hour delays before it was finally announced that the flight was cancelled, and that we would have to check in at Tingwall near Lerwick, about an hour's drive away, the next morning.

So we called the Sumburgh Hotel where Mark gave us the last three rooms, and let the Observatory know. Apparently there were three plane-loads of people wanting to get in that day. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching seabirds and increasingly mountainous waves from the hotel bar. We had a short walk to Grutness but it was really far too windy and wet for any sensible bird watching. After dinner Ian Robertson, ex-Fair Isle warden who works behind the bar there, told us that a juvenile Pallid Harrier had been found nearby earlier that day. Paul Harvey came along later - it was actually he who identified it - and promised to take us out the next morning before we had to catch our flight.

9th September

We were up before 6 am. for Paul to collect us and drive us out to Loch Spiggie. It was a fine sunrise and there were plenty of birds around including a Peregrine, a rare bird on Shetland and our only one of the trip, but no sign of the harrier.

When we got back to the hotel 'our' pilot phoned us saying "Shall I come down and pick you up at Sumburgh?", a most welcome surprise! We caught the flight at 0950, and fifteen minutes later came in bumpily but safely down onto the Fair Isle landing strip. Here we met Holly and Derek and were driven to the Observatory where we were made most welcome as usual.

Before lunch we just had time to walk down to North Haven where there were waders including two Knot and a Purple Sandpiper. We then caught up with the other two members of the group who had come in the day before - Cliff came down off Buness and Theo was just coming in after a walk round the north of the island.

The problem with arriving on Sunday is that the first meal we have is an absolutely crippling Sunday lunch, but after taking an hour's rest to digest this meal we walked down to the south end of the island under the expert leadership of Cliff who soon found us the superb Rosy Starling by Aesterhoull. This was shortly followed by a Barred Warbler at the Haa and two Crossbills just by the South Harbour that flew up nicely to be on some thistles. We walked back up the island to the Observatory in increasingly strong gales. After supper Holly gave us a fascinating talk on the history of Fair Isle.

10th September

There was very little on the pre-breakfast trap roundÍ in fact no birds were caught at all! It was still a north or north-west wind, but slightly less now and there were a few gaps in the cloud. We walked past some Tysties (Black Guillemots) in South Haven and up past the airfield onto Hoini and the west cliffs. Here we got some lovely views across the island and saw a nice flock of Ringed Plover with a single Dunlin. We cut across to the shop where, as an experiment, they have put out some tea and coffee in flasks in the garage, a most welcome innovation. Then down to the south lighthouse where at least thirty Redshank were in a field and there was also a flock of Wigeon.

Another excellent innovation is the ability to be collected by the new Ranger Service and taken back for lunch which saves a long flog back up the island in the wind. After lunch we walked up to the north end of the island in increasing sunshine, but it was still very windy especially on the corner below the lighthouse. Here Neil and Jamie tried out Neil's new walkie-talkies. They seemed to work, but only when Neil was within shouting distance! It was a beautiful light for the walk back and we had superb coastal views and nice views of the Gannets in a colony on Cathedral Rock. We were back at the Observatory in time for tea and a flock of twelve Heron flying over. A final walk up to Buness revealed an apparent front approaching from the south-west. The wind was going round a bit, but no prospect of easterly winds yet.

11th September

Before breakfast a couple of Golden Plover were flying around over the Observatory, and two Wheatear and a Meadow Pipit were caught for ringing. After breakfast we got a lift down to the south lighthouse and watched waders and several other birds for a bit. Two Harbour Porpoise were quite entertaining. We then met Brian and Janet who had been to see Florrie Stout and her knitwear, and then went up to the Museum where we met Stuart Wilson. He was just getting into his stories of old Fair Isle when Holly suddenly appeared saying "Sorry to interrupt but we've called a 'Red Flag'!". Stuart was most understanding, and offered to take four of us back to the plantation where the bird was.

Jamie went with Holly and at the same time used the walkie-talkie successfully to call Neil, Keith and Angie who were making their way up from the lighthouse. We got to the plantation to see the bird on the ground on the slopes behind. It was a very pale bunting. Opinions were very divided about this. It was obviously either a Black- or a Red-headed Bunting juvenile, but various field guides were used and a fairly heated discussion ensued. However the best thing was that Holly managed the red flag event superbly and enabled everyone at the Observatory to be brought from around the island to see it, whatever it was.

We then managed to scrounge a lift right back to the south island to try for a Common Rosefinch that had been seen there, but no luck. We did see another Barred Warbler and examined the stooks of oats ready for making strawbacked chairs. We walked back quite swiftly via another Barred Warbler for lunch. After lunch we had a relaxing time on Buness watching out to sea and had superb views of two pairs of Ravens giving a wonderful display. At tea we saw both Garden Warbler and Barred Warbler in the hand before we set off to the Gully and Gilsetter where we flushed a number of Snipe and briefly a single Jack Snipe.

12th September

There were more birds in the trap-round this morning, including a Greenland Wheatear, as we got up to a south-westerly wind and increasing cloud. We walked down to the south end of the island again with not much to show for it. The wind was actually starting to go more south-easterly, but Derek said that it was 'the wrong kind of south-east' for birds.

However we did a sea-watch down at south lighthouse which included a few close in Gannets. It started to rain about 12.15 pm and we were picked up by Derek at 12.30 pm: excellent timing. In the afternoon it rained hard and there was much snoozing. Several of the group went down to the Museum in the rain and the rest waited till 4.00 pm before walking to the north end.

There were many more Wheatears about, many of them looking like the smart Greenland race and quite a few Meadow Pipits at north lighthouse. As the sun came out we watched Wigeon and Teal on the northern pools, and as we walked back a juvenile male Merlin flew across in front of us. Very soon after this a brown bird flew up from just along the heather. It was a Wryneck. Apparently this bird had been seen earlier at the Kirn of Skroo but it had not been seen this afternoon. It was great to re-find it. We had reasonable views as it flew up and tried to feed amongst the heather. Soon it was lost to sight along the cliff edge. We walked back in fairly high spirits to the Observatory, and immediately saw a juvenile Red-backed Shrike on the fence of the new plantation. This had apparently gone unnoticed; no one seemed to be looking out of the window! We went in to alert everyone, and soon had all the kitchen staff on the doorstep as well as the guests watching this bird together with a Willow Warbler: a great end to the day before going in for dinner.

But in fact it wasn't the end of the birding for the day. After the log Derek announced that, as the wind had dropped and it was a calm night, they would go Storm Petrel ringing. So at 9.30 pm we went down in the pitch-black fabulously starry night to the quay, here the tape of petrel calls was playing and a mist net was set up. After about three quarters of a hour Derrick brought in a Storm Petrel, a fantastic sight in the hand and we all took photos of this diminutive sea bird, a superb experience.

13th September

Things were looking up. It was a superb bright and sunny morning, and it started off with another good bird in the hand. In addition to the usual wheatears and pipits a Merlin had been caught. There was great excitement in the ringing room as this was very carefully extracted, measured and held up for all to admire briefly before its release. An immature female, it was probably on its way south from its breeding grounds in Iceland.

After breakfast we took advantage of the fabulous weather, sun and light north-easterly winds to walk along the east cliffs and then back in through the crofts. On our way we saw three Barred Warblers and a newly-arrived Spotted Flycatcher.

In the afternoon it looked great for a walk up Ward Hill hoping for superb views of the island in the clear conditions but as soon as we got to the top the mist came down giving an eerie quality to the remains of the old radar station up there. Of course as soon as we got half way back down it cleared again but I don't think any of us had the energy to go back up. At the airfield several waders on the runway included three Dunlin and a Little Stint. This bird was in fact the first of the autumn, and it was to reappear in North Haven as soon as we returned. The Red-backed Shrike had been performing well out outside the Observatory all day. The main feature of the walk, and in fact the whole day, were the amazing number of wheatears, mostly big bright Greenland Wheatears, all over the heather slopes, like 'peach coloured flames' as Theo put it. We counted over eighty this afternoon. In the evening we were entertained by slides of Hywel the Assistant Warden's trip to New Zealand.

14th September

It was a lovely sunny morning, and an excellent bird was trapped in the plantation after breakfast and released, a Yellow-browed Warbler, the first of the autumn, and the first Siberian bird of the trip. It was admired in the hand and released in the new plantation by the Observatory where it stayed and performed well all day.

We were taken down to the south end of the island where we finally caught up with the Common Rosefinch at Haa and we had good views of several Barred Warblers. Also amongst the Redshanks we had a very conspicuous leucistic, almost all-white bird. We walked back to the Observatory still in the sunshine. After lunch we said farewell to Theo and Cliff who were off on the afternoon flight. However the weather didn't last and only the really mad contingent walked out in the rain to see a few Willow Warblers and a Blackcap. It rained all evening.

15th September

It was a showery start and a quick walk round produced the usual waders. We said farewell to the Observatory mid-morning and flew in nice sunshine back to Sumburgh where we said goodbye to Keith and Angie (who we'd advise to stop reading at this point!), and said hello to several birders that we knew, including Travelling Naturalist leader Phil Read who was off to Fair Isle.

Here we were met by Paul and whisked to the hotel where Theo and Cliff were waiting for us. We were soon having lunch at Loch Hillwell where we saw a few ducks and waders including hundreds of Golden Plover. Paul then took us on a tour of a few likely 'hotspots' for birds including Loch Brue and the Pool of Virkie where there were many waders on the excellent mid- tide for viewing. These included Sanderling, Little Stint and one Curlew Sandpiper as well as Bar-tailed Godwit. We then decided to try Loch Hillwell again where there seemed to be more duck, and Paul soon found the drake eclipse American Wigeon, only subtly different from the eclipsed Europeans.

As we were watching these and a Pintail, Paul saw the Pallid Harrier come into view, all too briefly as Brian and Jamie missed it! After a brief look round and a quick trip to Quendale which was blocked by cows we went back to the hotel for a celebration (or in my case a consolation) cup of tea. After tea we headed up to Grutness where, looking cautiously in the garden, we saw the Icterine Warbler briefly that had been spotted earlier.

Back to Quendale where there was no sign of the Citrine Wagtail reported earlier, and thence to Loch Spiggie, where there was a proper 'twitch' going on, with around fifty birders along the road, a huge crowd in Shetland terms. We split up, Jamie to await the Citrine Wagtail by the chicken sheds where it was last seen, and Paul and Neil down the road for the harrier. We were in walkie-talkie contact. Just after a Green Sandpiper dropped into the pool by the chickens Jamie scored first, with 'Citrine, Citrine' on the radio sending Neil and a Mexican wave of other birders scurrying up the road. Some (not us) were actually running for this smart first-winter bird, which performed well in its somewhat unsalubrious surroundings of dungheaps and chicken-sheds.

As we walked back down to the vehicle the Pallid Harrier was seen over a nearby hill and then gave superb views as it glided over the lake and across the marsh to perch on a fence post. It was in view about fifteen minutes before flying away over the hill, never to be seen again. A Pallid Harrier is an exceedingly rare bird in the British Isles; this is only the eleventh record but our Swedish contacts tell us that there have been a lot in Scandinavia this year.

It had been a superb afternoon and a wonderful introduction to Shetland birding, with three or four new species for several of us!

16th September

It was cold when we made an early start to catch the ferry to Yell and Fetlar. We made the ferry with at least ten minutes to spare and had time for a scenic tour of Yell. Almost immediately a young female Merlin flew alongside then in front of the vehicle.

We headed across the island via some sea-lochs for waders and Common Seal and then to the Fetlar ferry where we had time for a coffee break.

It was fairly rough on the crossing with waves breaking over the windscreen of the vehicle which was in the front of the boat. There were many Gannets and Tysties. On Fetlar there was no sign of the Isabelline Wheatear from yesterday or the Corncrake flushed by some other 'birders'. We went down to the shore and back where there was a remarkable gathering of at least eight Ravens, and then headed to Tresta for lunch where the plantation produced very little.

After that we went to a nearby farm, where we glimpsed the Serin that had been there for a few weeks flying around a couple of times. However it was a very cold wind and we soon headed back to the vehicles. Back at the warm Visitor Centre we spent a nice time looking at the displays and then headed back via Yell and the mainland to Kergord Plantation where we found a highly unusual bird for Shetland, a Great Spotted Woodpecker in one of the trees. Some of us also had an 'armchair-tick' today: Paul reckons that the bunting that we saw on Fair Isle was in fact a Black-headed Bunting - and therefore a tickable wild bird!

17th September

We got up to calmer conditions, a light northerly wind and overcast. We met Paul at 9.00 am and then headed to the Pool of Virkie where we had a look round the waders before stopping at Scatness and then to Hillwell. Both were quiet. Spiggie produced a Pink-footed Goose with the Greylags and a single Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit with the Curlews. We went up to one of the highest points of south Mainland, the Eiffel Tower communication mast. We had superb panoramic views across to Foula to the west and to Fair Isle to the south. Then north to Lerwick where we sampled the delights of the fish quay. Here we saw amazingly close Grey Seals awaiting a free lunch.

Then we headed to Kergord where Goldcrest and Robin were new but, better still, Neil found a Wood Warbler which reappeared all too briefly. After lunch we headed north via the west coast stopping at Tresta Voe where we saw Red-throated Diver and Slavonian Grebe, and then had a look at the sheltered trees of Voe. Heading across to Yell we stopped to get good views of Golden Plover on the shore and then across to Unst on a much calmer ferry than yesterday.

Finally we ended the day at Lamba Ness where we had superb views of streams of Gannets and a brief view of Harbour Porpoise and a possible whale. However this wasn't to reappear. It was decidedly cold here at this remote spot, which is about as far north-east as you can go in Britain. Finally we returned to a warm welcome at the Baltasound Hotel.

18th September

It was overcast and calm early on, and we started where we finished yesterday, at Lamba Ness Almost immediately we saw three Snow Buntings flying and perching on one of the ruined military buildings. A short sea-watch produced almost immediate results as a Sooty Shearwater came in towards the cliffs. We had superb views as it approached in the calm dull conditions. We waited a bit longer and Cliff found us another one coming in close: two excellent views.

We then headed to Skaw where we had a couple of Winchat and a Whitethroat and then back to Norwick where a garden was most productive with Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Willow Warbler and two Common Rosefinch which performed very well for us. After coffee at Haroldswick we went to the Helligarth Plantation which was very quiet apart from several Collared Doves.

We then had lunch at Burrafirth and headed back to the boathaven. Driving around Baltasound we saw another Common Rosefinch and several Wood Pigeons, scarce birds here. We had a look in the Heritage Centre with its excellent displays and then headed back to Skaw and finally returning to Norwick where a Barred Warbler was glimpsed in the garden.

19 September

It was overcast with a north-easterly wind as we started once again at Lamba Ness. Here we saw at least ten Snow Bunting and another Sooty Shearwater; then a white-winged Gull came in close. We had brief views of this bird flying away and identified it as a first-winter Iceland Gull. A small white-rumped bird flew away: a Common (Mealy) Redpoll flying and calling. This was not seen again, a shame as it was the first time this newly-split species had been seen by a Travelling Naturalist group!

We then headed to Vidlin, but there was not much passage, and then headed back to the hotel to check out. The south end of Unst had little new, and the crossing was calm. After going back to our favourite coffee shop we went down to the west side of Yell stopping at a potentially superb sheltered garden. We had lunch waiting for the ferry and then waited for the crew as they had their lunch. But as the ferry pulled out Neil saw an Otter and got us all on to it. The animal surfaced and dived repeatedly as we went past. Closer to the mainland we saw an Arctic Tern flying away off, our first of the trip Then to several new parts of the mainland including Sullom Voe and its plantation and to Busta where we finally got a result for all our efforts in the shape of a Yellow-browed Warbler in one of the sycamores. We headed back to Kergord, where it was very quiet and finally to Spiggie via lots of stops looking at gulls. We ended the day at the Pool of Virkie where we saw several Ruff and Little Stints.

20 September

Next morning we had a little time for birding locally and headed up to the lighthouse. A Common Swift seemed to be lingering around the cliffs. However there was little sea passage. We checked the two quarries which can be excellent for rarities but there was nothing there today and so we headed for the airport for our flights home.

Many thanks to Paul for his excellent bird-finding skills, local knowledge of every tree and bush on Shetland, and good company and thanks to all at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory for making us feel so welcome and looking after us so well.

Jamie McMillan

Neil Arnold



Fair Isle is part of Shetland, but in this report Fair Isle is abbreviated F I, whereas the other islands are shown as Shetland.

* 'British Birds' rarity

Red-throated Diver: Two, Tresta, Mainland, 17th.

Slavonian Grebe: Four,Tresta, Mainland,17th.

Northern Fulmar: Widespread and numerous.

Sooty Shearwater: Two north 18th and one north 19th, Lamba Ness, Unst.

European Storm Petrel: One, caught F I , 12th.

Northern Gannet: Very numerous.

Great Cormorant: Scarce, one on F I , a dozen records, Shetland.

European Shag: Very numerous, peak count 600, Sumburgh, 21st.

Grey Heron: Up to twelve F I, widespread on Shetland.

Mute Swan: Four Mainland.

Whooper Swan: Four Mainland.

Pink-footed Goose: One with Greylags, Loch of Spiggie, Mainland.

Greylag Goose: Widespread on Shetland. Largest flock 63 on Unst.

Eurasian Wigeon: Up to fourteen F I and more on Mainland. Peak count fifty at Loch of Hillwell, Mainland.

*American Wigeon: An eclipse drake at Loch of Hillwell, 15th. A national rarity.

Gadwall: A single drake, Loch of Spiggie, Mainland.

Common Teal: At least nine F I, small flocks on Shetland.

Mallard: Two F I and widespread on Shetland.

Northern Pintail: Three on Loch of Hillwell, Mainland and one flew north off Lamba Ness,17th.

Tufted Duck: Flocks of four at Loch of Spiggie and Loch of Tingwall, Mainland.

Common Eider: Very widespread.

Common Goldeneye: Small flocks, Shetland.

Red-breasted Merganser: Small flocks on the sea and on lochs.

*Pallid Harrier: An immature bird came into roost at the Loch of Brow, on the evening of 15th. This very rare bird was the eleventh record for Britain.

Common Kestrel: A female on F I.

Merlin: Five records of a male and female F I and a female on Yell.

Peregrine: An immature bird, Loch of Spiggie, 9th.

Common Moorhen: Five at the Loch of Hillwell.

Common Coot: Three at the Loch of Hillwell

Oystercatcher: Up to five F I and widespread on Shetland.

Golden Plover: Up to three F I and flocks on Shetland. Largest flock 600, Unst 18th.

Lapwing: Widespread on Shetland.

Ringed Plover: At least fourteen on F I but numerous on Shetland.

Black-tailed Godwit: One, Loch of Spiggie, 17th.

Bar-tailed Godwit: Up to five Pool of Virkie, Mainland.

Whimbrel: Single birds on F I and Shetland.

Curlew: Up to three F I but numerous Shetland.

Common Redshank: Highest F I count 44. Common on Shetland.

Greenshank: Five records on Shetland.

Green Sandpiper: Two F I and one at Loch Of Spiggie, Mainland.

Turnstone: Twenty-five on F I but greater numbers Shetland.

Common Snipe: Common in wet areas.

Jack Snipe: One, Gillsetter, F I , 11th.

Red Knot: Two F I .

Sanderling: At least twenty at Pool of Virkie,15th.

Little Stint: Seven Pool of Virkie, 19th.

Purple Sandpiper: Two F I .

Dunlin: Up to six F I and up to twenty Shetland.

Curlew Sandpiper: A single bird Pool of Virkie from 15th- 17th.

Ruff: Peak count on Shetland twenty at Loch of Hillwell, 15th.

Great Skua: Still present in huge numbers.

Arctic Skua: One flew north off Lamba Ness,19th.

Common Gull: Up to twenty on F I and common on Shetland.

Great Black-backed Gull: Common.

Iceland Gull: A first-winter bird flew north off Lamba Ness,19th.

Herring Gull: Common.

Black- headed Gull: A handful of records.

Kittiwake: Only on Shetland . Peak count twenty.

Common Tern: Two records of single birds, Shetland.

Arctic Tern: One Yell.

Guillemot: Twenty scattered records.

Razorbill: Three records on Shetland.

Black Guillemot: Very widespread.

Rock Dove: Well distributed.

Wood Pigeon: Five at Kergord, Mainland and five on Unst.

Collared Dove: Increasingly widespread on Shetland.

Wryneck: One on F I, 12th.

Great Spotted Woodpecker: An immature bird at Kergord, Mainland 16-17th.

Sky Lark: Common. Migrants were obvious F I.

Barn Swallow: Feeding groups of up to eleven on Mainland.

*Citrine Wagtail: An immature bird at Loch of Spiggie, 15th This is another official British rarity.

Pied Wagtail: Widespread.

Meadow Pipit: Very common.

Rock Pipit: Common on the shore and even beyond on F I.

Red-backed Shrike: A single bird F I on 12th-13th.

Wren: F I and Shetland races seen well.

Blackbird: Common on Shetland.

Robin: Heard at Kergord, Shetland 17-20th.

Whinchat: A scattering of migrants.

Northern Wheatear: Widespread. An obvious movement of Greenland birds through F I.

Reed Warbler: One F I 10th.

Icterine Warbler: One at Grutness, Mainland,15th.

Willow Warbler: A scattering of migrants.

Chiffchaff: One on Unst,18th.

Wood Warbler: One at Kergord, Mainland, 17th.

Yellow-browed Warbler: One F I ,14th and one Busta, Mainland, 19th.

Blackcap: One F I 14th and one Unst 18th.

Garden Warbler: Nine records. Peak six Unst,18th.

Common Whitethroat: A male, Skaw, Unst, 18th.

Lesser Whitethroat: One F I, 14th and one Shetland 15th.

Barred Warbler: At least four F I and two Shetland.

Goldcrest: Scattered records in wooded areas, Shetland.

Spotted Flycatcher: One F I, 13th.

Jackdaw: Two with Rooks, Mainland.

Rook: Flocks, Mainland.

Carrion Crow: Very common and widespread.

Common Raven: Common and widespread.

Common Starling: Very common.

*Rosy Starling: A fine adult F I, 8-12th.

Snow Bunting: Heard F I and at least ten Unst, 18-19th.

*Black-headed Bunting: An immature bird, F I, from 11th. This is another British rarity.

Chaffinch: A single bird, Unst, 18th.

European Serin: A glimpse of a single bird, Fetlar, 16th.

Common (Mealy) Redpoll: A single bird seen briefly, Unst, 19th.

Twite: Very common.

Common Rosefinch: One F I, 14th and three, Unst, 18th.

Common Crossbill: Two F I, 8th-9th and 14th

House Sparrow: Common.


Otter: One off Unst, 19th.

Common Seal: Widespread on Shetland.

Grey Seal: Common F I and Shetland.

Harbour Porpoise: Thirteen records F I and Shetland. Peak count six, Sumburgh, 20th.

Rabbit: Seen daily


Shetland Bumblebee: One seen at Midway, FI, 14th.

Garden Bumblebee: Several at Busta, Shetland, 19th.

© The Travelling Naturalist 2001