Fair Isle

Friday 6 - Friday 13 September 2002

Neil Arnold, Dorset
Jamie McMillan, Dorset

Trip Diary

6 September

We met at Sumburgh airport at 1130 in sunshine, but the ground was still wet from a recent shower. We had till the afternoon to wait for our flight to Fair Isle, so phoned Mark at the Sumburgh Hotel - he arranged a lift up to the hotel, and kindly allowed us to leave our bags there while we went out birding. The hotel garden was promising, with two Willow Warblers and a Goldcrest - a useful sign of migration. A Wheatear on the hotel drive was a very bright 'pot-bellied' Greenland Wheatear.

We walked down to Grutness Bay, where we saw a few waders, and Gannets fishing close in, and on the way back saw a Shetland Bumblebee. Back at the hotel we chatted to Iain Robertson - one of several ex-wardens of Fair Isle who still live on Shetland - before it was time to head back to the airport, and the small plane that took us to Fair Isle in brilliant sunshine, together with Ann, who was to be our cook for the week, as no less than two of the staff had broken legs!

On hallowed turf at 1515 to be greeted by Hollie and the van, and after a short briefing, out wondering what our first Fair Isle bird would be - I don't think we'd have guessed it was to be a Crossbill in the new plantation, but in fact these invaders from the boreal forests were to be seen daily during the week. Almost the next bird was a Barred Warbler, again in the plantation! The havens had more Crossbills on the thistles, including a stunning red male which we admired down to a few feet away, and Pied Flycatcher. A superb start to the week!

7 September

It was a glorious morning for our first trap-round, which produced two Goldcrests - surely a sign that migrants were on the way.

It was still sunny and fine after a huge breakfast, and a light NE wind promised much. The general opinion was that it would take a day or two, but 10 minutes up the road, the van came tearing towards us, and a breathless Alan yelling 'Lanceolated Warbler in the plantation!!' Now, we're not twitchers, are we Neil÷but there was a definite quickening of the step as we headed up the road, arriving just in time to see the bird fly up out of the dense willows into a mist net.

We had superb views as Derek showed us this diminutive Siberian skulker in the hand.

Lanceolated Warbler, 7 September 2002 (Photo: Ailsa McKee)

What a start - Fair Isle's prime speciality on the first morning!

With a spring in our step we headed down to the crofts. The Chalet garden, with its pond and good vegetation, obliged with both Barred and Icterine warblers, at times perching next to each other on the compost heap fence. Down at Quoy we looked in the crops without success, and then walked across to Schoolton to say hello to Nick Riddiford - another ex-warden. Nick showed us several moths including a fine Red Swordgrass that he'd caught on 'sugar' - the sort of lovely treacly mixture Jamie likes in a pudding - that attracts moths as well.

Back to Quoy, where another birder was settled watching the crops, and pointing - it was the female Chestnut Bunting that had been present for a few days, feeding quietly amongst the stooks. A distinctly underwhelming bird, this was, nonetheless, potentially the first accepted British record.

Down towards South Harbour, where a Pinkfoot was grazing on Meoness, and to South Light where we had our packed lunches. The weather was dead calm, and huge shower clouds were bubbling up around us, while thunder could be heard out to sea.

As we walked back along the road past Utra, Neil suddenly announced : 'Two Cranes!' These flew past Malcolm's Head, did a stately loop, and proceeded north, where we caught up with them on the ground south of Pund later. An exciting moment indeed - the thirteenth record for the island, and only the second in autumn.

Back for tea at the obs, and as we watched from the dining room window, the 'Lancy' scuttled in and out of the garden vegetables just a few feet away, which was OK if you knew your onions: 'Between the beetroot and the carrots, it's in the spring onions...'

Later, after a long evening log, the Northern Lights flickered faintly over the hill, but it was too cloudy to get the full spectacle. What a day it had been!

8 September

The trap- round was uneventful except for a Lesser Whitethroat, a new bird for the trip. We decided to get a lift to the south this morning, a wrong move in retrospect! We started by looking round the Wallie Burn for the reported Citrine Wagtail. From the road we saw Ravens over Malcolm's Head, and then a confusion of raptors with us each looking at a different bird: a female Kestrel and also a Peregrine stooping repeatedly.

We were just walking up the Burn and we saw Derek coming round the corner waving a red flag out of the van window. We rushed down to the road to get the news of a Two-barred Crossbill at Chalet. We got there to find it had flown off east ÷. If only we had walked down with the main group from the Observatory instead of getting a lift we would have seen this bird! However, not despondent we walked along a field ditch to the coast for superb views of the cliffs but no sign of the Crossbill.

We then went back to the road and walked back seeing more Lesser Whitethroat, Whimbrel and Garden Warbler. After a short stop at the shop we turned back and, as we approached the Chalet, heard a 'chuff chuff', as the male Two-barred Crossbill flew across overhead and landed on the roof of Barkland before flying down to the birdtable. It then crossed to the Chalet garden where we had absolutely superb views of this cracker of a bird: bright red with black and white wings, for all the world like some tropical Tanager.

We walked back in high spirits in glorious sunshine via the plantation where a Merlin flew across for our third raptor of the day. After a fantastic lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding we left south again to have a long look round the Wallie Burn for the wagtail. Eventually Mike said "I've got it" as we examined wagtails on the shore and, sure enough, he had distant views of the Citrine Wagtail in his telescope. It was very flighty and we chased it up to the field eventually getting fair telescope views as it wandered through the grass. As we went back across the road a Robin popped up on the Haa and, more surprisingly, a flock of Chaffinches flew over(again it is an early date for birds like this) before a nice walk back to the Observatory in the sunshine.

9 September

The trap-round in gloomy cloud produced only a Blackcap. At breakfast torrential rain hit the island but then cleared to reveal a promising east wind and mist. We walked down to the Havens where we saw a Pied Flycatcher: without a ring so it was a different bird to the one we saw first day.

We then walked up the road to Gilsetter where Neil and Ailsa walked the marsh while Jamie and Mike went up on the fields above North Park. Neil flushed a Jack Snipe just about the same time as the other two heard Lapland Buntings. Neil was summoned over the walkie-talkies and we all duly saw the Lapland Buntings very well perching on a stone wall. We then headed back to the marsh where we spread out, and it was Ailsa this time who flushed the Jack Snipe which flew past and gave us excellent flight views. We walked back to the road and suddenly there was the Jack Snipe again. It had been flushed by another birder who was walking across the marsh and it flew right over our heads giving head-on and tail-on views as it went past: one of the best flight views I have ever had of Jack Snipe.

We then headed back to the Observatory for another huge lunch. After lunch we went for a walk up north for a change of scenery and a good look at the dramatic north cliffs. There were few birds though, just four Wigeon on Golden Water and another Crossbill on short turf close to us along the cliff-top. We then headed back for tea where we heard of a Corncrake flushed near the plantation. We walked up there with no result but saw another Crossbill very close on the stone wall. It had been another super day, but not quite as busy as we had hoped for in the promising east wind.

10 September

It was clear overnight with a bright orange dawn. The trap- round was promising this morning with a Reed Warbler and the trip's first Common Whitethroat.

It was starting to cloud over in a strengthening north-east wind after breakfast as we walked up to the airfield seeing five Ravens in the air together. There were a few waders there including a Knot and then we saw small birds at the end of the runway including Meadow Pipits, Skylarks and no less than nine Lapland Buntings, eventually seen well in our telescopes. We headed back to the plantation and up past the ringing hut when a Crossbill flew towards us. It was the male Two-barred again, giving splendid views again on a thistle head. It was lovely to see this splendid bird so well for a second time.

It was very windy on the road at Barkland so we headed down past the shop, stocking up on chocolate bars, and continued south. We then saw the other Assistant Warden Simon at Lower Leogh. He had just seen a Bluethroat÷ which one of the islanders had trapped in one of the barns by shutting the door! However this is the one croft that is out of bounds to birders, so sadly we could not see it.

It was overcast as we settled down in the shelter of South Light for lunch, and we gradually saw more and more on the rocks. Mike found a Common Sandpiper and a Red-breasted Merganser was fishing in the bay. We walked up to the Haa while Neil stocked up on Fair Isle hats, and back on the south shore a warbler drew our attention fly-catching along the cliffs; it was a very smart Wood Warbler.

We then walked up around the Kennaby Loop, and in increasing sunshine and a now south-easterly wind saw a Redstart and several warblers. We then walked up to the Kirk and back round to Medway when an old car drew up, the door opened and Jimmy Stout (the elder) popped his head out and said "I've just heard a Richard's Pipit", shut the door and drove on. Jimmy's advice is not to be ignored under these circumstances and we wandered back down the road towards Midway, and saw a Red-backed Shrike on a post performing very well in the sunshine. Here we were joined by a dozen others from the Observatory who had not seen this bird - almost a 'twitch' by Fair isle standards! Failing to see the pipit we walked back, the wind had dropped and as we got to the chalet we realised that the garden was leaping with warblers. With the afternoon sun behind us we had superb views of Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler and Barred Warbler feeding on the angelica heads, together with Robin and Whinchat: an excellent end to the day. It was a clear night and the Northern Lights were visible again low on the horizon.

11 September

Before breakfast the trap-round produced an eastern Lesser Whitethroat blythii, a rather browner bird than the normal ones, which we saw well in hand.

After breakfast we opted to be dropped off at the chalet where we had a good selection of migrants including Spotted Flycatcher. We walked over to the west cliff and Hjukni Geo where there were a few migrants in the shelter over the cliffs, including Willow Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat. We saw a Song Thrush, a Swallow and an Arctic Skua overhead in quick succession, all new birds for the trip. We walked up to Sukka Mire where the sheep rounding up was in process, so diverted to Hoini for fabulous views of the island in the bright sun and getting views of Foula way out to the west in the clear air.

Jamie stopped to answer the phone while the others went on and, while he was catching up with them, he saw both Turtle Dove and Merlin. Despite him shouting to the others they only found a Pied Flycatcher down a 'geo'. We walked back quickly for lunch just making it in time.

After lunch we headed south and saw the Red-backed Shrike again at Houll. The sheep rounding-up was well in progress now and we watched various styles of sheep-dog: from the best of breed, who only had to twitch an ear for the sheep to run into the pen, to the completely clueless who ran about chasing sheep to distraction while the owner was yelling some fairly choice Fair Isle dialect.

At the South Light we saw more waders but then walked west climbing over the wall towards Hesti Geo. As we headed down there the Pink-footed Goose flew low over our heads and we saw another Red-backed Shrike. However the bird we wanted was in the geo itself, and as we got there it flew up, perching on the side of the cliff: a superb Wryneck. This bird gave the most superlative views as it fed and sunbathed on the rockface. Our scope views in the full late afternoon sunshine were probably the best either Neil or I have had of a Wryneck anywhere. Nearby we had seen a pair of Crossbills including a fine red male, apparently picking up grit on the side of the cliff; an amazing set of birds within a few yards of each other. We then walked back just in time for a late supper during which we hopped out to see a Brambling in the garden.

12 September

We awoke to thick fog. Down at the Havens the thistles were full of birds. One patch had Crossbill, Brambling, Chaffinch, Lesser Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Whitethroat and Reed Warbler with Robin and Willow Warbler nearby. After breakfast these were joined by a stranded Gannet, an odd sight in the same field of view as Crossbill! Later on an immature Yellow Wagtail was feeding outside the Observatory. By this time we were getting pretty used to Crossbills although it was an odd sight to see one immature bird actually on the step of the Observatory just outside the lounge clutching a thistle head and trying to extract the seeds.

Despite the gloomy weather we decided to have a short potter down to the south of the island where we saw the Richard's Pipit from yesterday amongst the crops at Midway. The mist was lifting but not a lot as we walked back and we wondered whether we would get out tomorrow.

13 September

Well, one look at the fog and we knew we were not going to fly out! However, word had reached us that all those sheep that had been rounded up a couple of days ago needed transporting and there was going to be a 'sheep boat' today. This was duly confirmed and so, having had an early breakfast, we headed down for the harbour having left some of our luggage outside which went down with the sheep vans. Some of us had not quite made it out with our luggage in time for the lorries, though, and Holly offered to take this down in the obs.van.

We watched the 150 or so sheep being loaded aboard very efficiently, said our farewells and left on the 'Good Shepherd', sailing out of the harbour into the mist beyond. Two Sooty Shearwaters greeted us just as we left North Light. There were many auks as we went on our way including several Puffins in winter plumage and more Sooty Shearwaters. We saw porpoises rather distantly and Kittiwakes.

Suddenly there was some consternation on the bridge and the 'Good Shepherd' abruptly did a 180º turn and started heading back towards Fair Isle. Mike came out from the bridge, where he had been watching all these goings on, and told us that we had had a radio message that half the luggage was still in the obs van! So three quarters of an hour later we were arriving on Fair Isle for the second time this week. Holly's embarrassment was very self-evident, but I think she was forgiven by Jimmy - on the promise of a good roast dinner - and we loaded up small amount of extra luggage and headed back again.

The trip was now turning into a mini-cruise, and a very pleasant one at that: the sea was calm and, despite the fog, there was some visibility and we were quite happy watching sea birds. As we approached the Shetland mainland things started to get busier and we saw more Sooty Shearwaters and several Risso's Dolphins which came pretty close to the boat in pairs of larger and smaller animals, possibly females and calves together. Nearer Shetland itself we saw two Velvet Scoter fly past, quite unusual birds for this time of year, before we put into Grutness.

It had been a superb week full of surprises, not just in terms of the birds but in terms of the weather as well. We would like to thank all the staff on Fair Isle for making us most welcome. The food was once again superb, the company great, and the birds and the island splendid as ever - we are very much looking forward to our return next year.


All records refer to Fair Isle (F) unless otherwise stated. 'Mainland' refers to Mainland Shetland. (M)


(R) - denotes a 'British Birds' rarity

(D) - denotes a 'Category D' species

Northern Fulmar Still present in huge numbers.

Sooty Shearwater Two noted off Buness and one off Sumburgh Head, Mainland. Both from the 'Good Shepherd IV' on 13th.

European Storm Petrel Three in the Mainland half of the journey on the 'Good Shepherd IV' on 13th.

Northern Gannet Common.

Great Cormorant Two off Buness.

European Shag Common

Grey Heron Noted daily - peaks count seven on 10th.

Pink-footed Goose One near the Walli Burn, 7th and 11th.

Eurasian Wigeon At least five birds throughout.

Teal Up to five daily.

Mallard A single bird.

Common Eider Flocks offshore.

Velvet Scoter Two off Sumburgh Head, Mainland from the 'Good Shepherd IV' on 13th.

Red-breasted Merganser A single bird, Heski Geo, 10th.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk A female over Homisdale, 7th.

Common Kestrel Noted 8th - 12th. Two birds were present 8th - 9th.

Merlin Single birds on 8th, 11th and 12th.

Peregrine One hunting over Malcolm's Head, 8th.

Common Crane Two adults flew in from the south and then settled near Pund, 7th. Both left in the early hours of 8th. The 13th record for Fair Isle and only second in autumn.

Common Moorhen A young bird, Sumburgh, Mainland, 6th.

Eurasian Oystercatcher Up to eleven seen daily.

Northern Lapwing Recorded daily, peak count thirty-two on 11th.

Golden Plover Noted daily, peak count, forty-three on 10th.

Ringed Plover Seen daily, peak count, ten on 7th.

Whimbrel A single bird 8th - 11th.

Eurasian Curlew Up to five seen daily.

Common Redshank Noted daily, peak count twenty-three on 17th.

Common Sandpiper A single bird near the South Lighthouse, 10th.

Turnstone Daily records; seventeen was the largest count, 11th.

Common Snipe Noted daily, peak fourteen.

Jack Snipe Wonderful flight views of a single bird, Gilsetter, 9th.

Red Knot Two in the North Haven 17th and a single bird on the Airport 10th - 12th.

Dunlin Daily counts, peak eleven on 7th.

Ruff Two, 7th and one, 10th.

Great Skua Large numbers still offshore.

Arctic Skua A single bird over the NW on 11th and three off Fair Isle from the 'Good Shepherd IV'.

Common Gull Migrants generally present in small numbers but a flock of over one hundred passed on 8th.

Herring Gull Common.

Great Black-backed Gull Common - flocks of up to thirty.

Black-headed Gull A single bird was joined by a second on 11th.

Kittiwake An immature bird off the South Harbour (11th) and three near Fair Isle (13th) from the 'Good Shepherd IV'.

Guillemot Noted on 13th from the 'Good Shepherd IV', seventeen (F).

Razorbill On 13th, eleven (F) and two (M) from 'Good Shepherd IV'.

Black Guillemot Flocks off shore. A few from the 'Good Shepherd IV'.

Puffin On 13th, thirty-six from the 'Good Shepherd IV' (F).

Auk Sp. Two hundred and thirty from the 'Good Shepherd IV'.

Rock Dove Seen daily.

European Turtle Dove One Gunnawark, 11th.

Wryneck A fine individual seen at close range, Hesti Geo, 12th.

Sky Lark Widespread.

Barn Swallow Two (7th) and one (10th).

Yellow Wagtail An immature bird in the Havens on 12th.

(R) Citrine Wagtail An immature bird South Harbour, 8th.

Pied / White Wagtail Common.

Richard's Pipit A single individual of this scarce, annual migrant, 12th.

Meadow Pipit Obvious migration, including a flock of twenty-nine over the 'Good Shepherd IV' on 13th.

Rock Pipit Common.

Red-backed Shrike Two in the crofts 10th - 11th.

Wren Widespread.

Blackbird Only at Sumburgh, Mainland.

Song Thrush One, 11th, Hjukni Geo.

Robin Four records of single birds.

Common Redstart One, Busta, 10th.

Whinchat A common migrant.

Northern Wheatear Obvious migration, up to sixteen daily, including a few Greenland Wheatears

(R) Lanceolated Warbler A fine individual was caught at the plantation on 7th. This is one of the most sought-after species on any autumn visit to Fair Isle. The second-earliest record on the island, and the first for The Travelling Naturalist in the UK.

Reed Warbler Noted daily, peak four, 11th.

Icterine Warbler A single bird, 7th.

Willow Warbler A common migrant, peak fourteen 7th.

Wood Warbler One, South Harbour,10th.

Blackcap Noted on most days.

Garden Warbler A common migrant noted daily, peak eight, 10th.

Common Whitethroat Up to four daily.

Lesser Whitethroat Common migrant, peak ten, 11th.

Barred Warbler Seven records, often two together.

Goldcrest Ones or twos 7th - 10th.

Spotted Flycatcher Two, 11th.

Pied Flycatcher Six records.

Rook A single bird - a pioneer of those to come later in the autumn.

Carrion Crow (Corrus corone) At least three daily.

Hooded Crow (Corrus cornix) Up to four.

Common Raven Groups of up to five seen daily.

Starling Common.

Reed Bunting One at the Plantation, 11th.

Lapland Bunting Close views of flocks of up to nine 9th - 11th.

(D) Chestnut Bunting A single bird at Quoy was positively identified as a female, but at present is only represented in category D of the British List. (Those birds where there is a reasonable doubt that they occurred in a wild state). Watch this space?

Chaffinch Appeared from 8th - peak count twenty-one, 12th.

Brambling A single bird 11th - 12th.

Greenfinch One, Sumburgh, Mainland.

Twite Common, flocks of over one hundred.

Crossbill Noted throughout our stay on Fair Isle. Groups of up to five feeding on thistle seeds.

(R) Two-barred Crossbill A male from 8th - 10th. The first for The Travelling Naturalist in the UK.

House Sparrow Flocks of up to thirty.


Grey Seal Common

Risso's Dolphin At least twelve south of mainland from 'Good Shepherd IV' on 13th.

Fair Isle Wood Mouse One at the Observatory 12th - 13th.

Rabbit Common.


Butterflies noted in the field: -

Red Admiral (Vanessa atlanta) Two records.

Painted Lady (Cynthia cardni) Two records.

The Moth trap produced records of: -

Silver-ground Carpet (Xanthorhae moutanata)

Garden Carpet (Xanthorhae fluctnata)

Large Yellow Underwing (Standfussiana lucernea)

Square-spot Rustic (Xestia xanthographa)

Rosy Rustic (Hydraecia micacea)

Northern Rustic (Standfussiana lucerna)

Some moths recorded in the field: -

Angleshades (Phlographora meticulosa)

Antler (Cerapteryx graminis)

Silver Y (Autographa gamma)

Rush Veneer (Nemophila noctuella)

Diamond-backed Moth (Plutella xylostella)

Nick Riddiford of Schoolton showed us: -

Red Swordgrass (Xylena vestusta) This he caught on the night of 6th / 7th: a rare migrant to Britain

The only indentified bee was -:

Shetland Bumblebee

© The Travelling Naturalist 2002