Fair Isle

Saturday 4 - Saturday 11 September 2004

Neil Arnold
Jamie McMillan

All trips are unique…but some are more unique than others. And this one certainly was, in Fair Isle terms: wall-to-wall sunshine, calm weather and almost hot at times, a concert with islanders, a boat trip round the island, sheep, sheep and sheep…but no rarities!
We did manage to see one or two birds, though, the highlights for me being the incredible number of Merlin sightings - probably more than any other trip we've run in the world (it is a widespread species worldwide) - and seeing both that species and Storm Petrel in the hand.
As usual, though, it was the island itself, and the islanders that made the trip so enjoyable - and of course the excellent company of the group!
Best wishes and thanks to all who made the trip such a success.
Jamie McMillan
(writing the report as Neil has run off to Brazil with the profits…)

4 September
The London contingent arrived at Sumburgh to see Alisa and John by a deserted check-in and the Fair Isle pilot still having coffee - so no hurry, then.
A smooth flight in light westerly wind and sunshine was enhanced by a 'dip' down to look at the Good Shepherd about half way to the island.
We were greeted by Deryk at the landing strip, piled in to the 'obs' van, and were soon rattling down the road to the obs - with a short stop to extricate a Twite from a roadside Heligoland trap. Our first bird in the hand duly seen and admired, we headed on to the obs to find our rooms and meet Hollie with the tea and biscuits.
Keen to make the most of the good weather, we soon headed south via our first 'Tysties' (Black Guillemots) and 'Bonxies' (Great Skuas) towards the Gully and 'Plantation' , where we saw a Pied Flycatcher, and, surprisingly, a Fieldfare - an early record. Also about here and in the first crofts were Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler and Goldcrest - a not unpromising start.
Two birds out of the window at supper may not sound too exciting - Chiffchaff and Blackbird - but they are scarce on Fair Isle at this time of year.

5 September
A bright start with sunrise at 6.30 am, and the first 'trap round' - with a Reed Warbler in the obs plantation the first new bird of the day. Claire, the Franch ranger, was on duty this morning, and caught several Meadow Pipits, and the Fieldfare from yesterday - a stunning bird to see in the hand.
We headed south again this morning, with small flocks of Golden Plover overhead as we walked the road. Here we caught up with one we had missed the day before - Barred Warbler. 'A three-pudding warbler', as Gwyneth decribed it! Further south, at Quoy, the 'rigs' - or small strips of crops and vegetables - were full of birds, including a Whinchat on the wires, and no less than three Common Rosefinches on the weed seeds. Swallows were much in evidence, with nine actually on the roof of one of the crofts. Down past the Haa two Canada Geese were in a field with some sheep. We discussed these for a while - they are rare birds on Fair Isle - but when we got back John said 'what Canada Geese?'. This prompted much discussion about the subtle differences between Canada Geese and sheep, which entertained us for pretty much the rest of the week.
Down at Skaddan - near South Light - a rig of oats had been planted by the Obs specifically to attract birds - and today it held Lesser Whitethroat and two more - or possibly two of the same - Common Rosefinches. While we waited at Utra for our lift back to the obs, a Swift flew over - a very late bird, and new for us on the isle.
Claire drove us back to the obs, and we got back just in time to see a Merlin being ringed - what a superb bird to see in the hand! A wonderful roast beef and yorkshire lunch and sunny afternoon prompted us to take it gently, with a walk on to nearby Buness, seeing a Pintail put up from a small pool and Knot on the grass sward, with several Greenland (now renamed 'three-pudding') Wheatears about.
More treats followed in the evening. A fortunate rescheduling by the obs of their 'Fair Isle Thursday' to Sunday meant that we were treated to slides and a talk about the island by Good Shepherd Skipper Jimmy Stout - who also turns out to be a fine photographer. And this was followed by a session from island band Fridarey - fine Scottish-style ballads and reels, only slightly marred by Jamie's big moment of spoons playing in the last number. During the evening the tantalising prospect of a boat trip round the island - provided weather and sheep behaved - was mooted for later in the week.

6 September
Another wonderful clear and sunny start. A Greenland Wheatear was caught in the trap round, but there seemed to be much less about , with what little wind there was still firmly in the west.
Up near the airfield we had the first two of an excellent run of Merlin sightings, while over the crofts flocks of Swallows hawked and Golden Plover called constantly overhead. By the school a flowery verge held Shetland Bumblebees and two Peacock butterflies enjoying the sunshine. The latter are pretty scarce on the isle, with only a handful of records annually.
The sheep sales were very much in progress, and we saw the small procession of auctioneer and a few traders going round to each croft. We were hearing bids of around £10 per head as we passed, but there were rumours of up to £40 per head later in the week. Anyway, the sheep looked pretty good, and the crofters seemed by and large pleased with the prices.
We took packed lunches down to South Light, seeing a Kittiwake and a couple of Arctic Terns past, but in fact mostly just enjoyed the sunshine. Our walk back was via Meoness and the east cliffs to the Brecks of Busta, with wonderful views of the 'back' of Sheep Rock, with its sea caves. Back at the school, another Merlin was seen chasing a Wheatear twist and turn about, until the Wheatear dived into the school playground, where it sought refuge under the impressive array of play equipment.
A calm evening with light cloud looked promising for one of Fair Isle's very special activities - the chance to go Storm Petrel ringing. Strange sounds emanated from the Havens after dark - either a bunch of giant chickens had landed or Deryk was playing his petrel tape. After the bird log we walked down to see the set-up: a mist net on the cliff top, with the chicken (sorry, petrel) noises coming from a tape player underneath. And almost immediately, two petrels were caught, popped into soft cloth bags, and taken up to the ringing room. Here we could admire these tiny ocean wanderers at close range. Ringing of European Storm Petrels has been very successful, with a big proportion of recoveries giving us lots of information on the birds' travels. Many of the birds re-trapped seem to be relatively young individuals wandering about likely-looking coasts, anywhere from Norway to the Isles of Scilly, looking for potential breeding sites.
Four birds were caught in all, with group members watching them being released back into the night - a thrilling experience!

7 September
Surprise, surprise, another fabulous morning - with the wind still, let's face it, firmly in the west. Sheep were being loaded on to the Good Shepherd down at the Havens for the first of many sheep-shifting trips the crew would do in the calm weather this week.
Today we decided to go north, where Gwyneth thought there would be no birds. But she was wrong as - wait for it - a thrilling Tufted Duck was seen on Golden Water. Apart from that she was right, though, and we enjoyed a nice walk in sunshine, and hearing the Grey Seals 'singing' from the rocks below.
Outside the dining room at lunchtime, the weather vane was pointing, excitingly, to south, then - yes - even a bit of south-east. So we headed to the nearby migrant hotspots after lunch, where there were a promising four Goldcrest in the gully together with Chiffchaff and Garden Warbler. Could this be the start of some real movement at last?
A walk up to Vaasetter failed to produce the hoped-for Lapland Buntings, but gave up superb views of Sheep Rock and the whole island.
Despite promising signs in the Gully, the nearby crofts were not exactly brimming with migrants. Indeed the only thing of interest in my notebook is two head-butting sheep! Maybe tomorrow…

8 September
Another bright morning with- yes! - a bit of east in the southerly wind.
But very little new was seen as we headed back south. Rosefinches again were showing at Quoy, as were Whinchats, while South Light again had a few waders. A walk back via the western 'geos' (sharply indented bays) gave us nice views of Sea Urchins at Hesti, and an intriguing Oystercatcher corpse with a ring on nearby.
The group had split up at this point, and I was left with Ailsa looking for Lapland Buntings back at Gilsetter, when my phone rang. Having had some strange Arabic messages earlier in the week, I left it to take a message, which turned out to be from Gwyneth, back down the island, with an Icterine Warbler in view! We covered the ground (a mile or so!) pretty quickly and were soon looking at this very yellow warbler perched up on a fruit cage at Shirva. Other birders from the Observatory apparently tried to see it later on and were disappointed, so many thanks to Gwyneth and Vodaphone!
Another Merlin was caught in a Heligoland tarp at duck, giving us an unprecedented second chance to see this dashing raptor in the hand.

9 September
We rang the changes a bit this morning, getting Claire and the van to take us down the island to start with. Once again a Rosefinch greeted us at Skaddan, and we had plenty of time to count waders and others at South Light. Two Barred Warblers were seen on the way back, with Garden Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat.
A choice of two directions after lunch - Jamie was determined to find the Lapland Buntings that kept being seen by the assistant wardens, while Neil wanted to find something new on Buness.
Neil's mini-group had excellent views of the seabirds, including an apparently waterlogged Fulmar. This bird was about 30m away from a group of about 30 Fulmars. A Bonxie appeared and settled on the sea near to the distressed Fulmar. Other Fulmars flew close to the Bonxie without making contact. Then one of the main flock of Fulmars flew in to settle between the Bonxie and the injured bird, raised its wings in a threat posture and managed to drive the Bonxie away - but only a metre or so. Eventually the Bonxie flew up and dived on to the sick Fulmar, pushing it into the water and drowning it! It then started pecking at the drowned bird while other Fulmars flew in circles above. A second Bonxie arrives, but the corpse is now jealously guarded by the first one. There's always something to see on Fair Isle!
Meanwhile, Jamie and crew were walking the edge of one of the 'parks' on Vaasetter, and flushed two Lapland Buntings, which eventually gave very good views as they settled on the ruined walls. This group also had good views of Lesser Whitethroat in the hand as it was caught in the Plantation and ringed at the nearby ringing hut.

10 September
We awoke to - thick fog! But it soon cleared, and we were hopeful that the hint of easterly in the wind might produce something.
This morning there was a botanical splinter group, led by Claire. The rest of us, having arranged to be met at the south end of the island in time for lunch, set off, seeing more of the same - though a flock of 10 Snipe were unusual. Back down at Skaddan, three Rosefinches made an excellent sight together in the same scope view, as the perched on a rock above the oat crop. We waited for our pick-up, and decided to walk back as lunchtime was fats approaching. We actually reached Gilsetter before Hollie appeared apologetically and whisked us back for a late lunch - and what turned out to be the highlight of the week for many of us - an island circumnavigation, courtesy of the Good Shepherd and its crew.
With the boat having been doing sheep runs back and forth to Sumburgh all week, and with the wind picking up, we weren't at all sure that the trip was going to happen - but we are most grateful that it did. Seen form the shore, the island's cliffs are spectacular enough. Seen from below, they are absolutely breathtaking! We really got to grips with the amazing geology of the island, thanks to some nifty boatmanship from Jimmy, and Neil's (Neil Thompson of the boat, not our great and glorious leader!) informative commentary. The different types of sandstone and various volcanic sills, and the way the intricate geos were formed were all pointed out.
Going round Sheep Rock we saw the impossibly narrow ledge that the sheep were carried up, and the chain that hoisted them on to their summer grazing. We heard about shipwrecks on the jagged eastern rocks, headed round the southern tip of the island and waved to two of the obs. guests on Meoness, then back up the stupendous west cliffs. Here we could at last see the extent of the ever-increasing Gannet colony, forming small pale patches now in many places along the west coast. We nosed in to the gully below the Hill Dyke, getting close view of the Gannets, then round the northern point of Dronger, and below the noisy (and smelly!) Gannet stacks there.
The two hours passed all too quickly - a unique event in Travelling Naturalist history, and a very rare event even for islanders. Many thanks especially to the Good Shepherd crew - Jimmy, Barry, Neil and Kenny - for a real treat!

11 September
Fog again! Which is not good news if you are trying to fly out.
In the event we waited for both the flights to be cancelled, had an unforeseen lunch at the obs - gaining Blackcap for the week, seeing yet another Merlin going past, and seeing our first Song Thrushes in the hand.
We had decided to charter the Good Shepherd - for the second day running! And hope that there were enough people stuck at Sumburgh to pay for the trip back! It was even foggier as we set off at 2pm, with a fair swell running in from the south-east. Not enough to put us off seawatching, though, and we had an excellent trip for both Storm Petrels - a remarkable 42 counted - and Sooty Shearwaters, with singles of Arctic Skua and Puffin to add to the list. It did get a bit exciting as we neared Sumburgh Head, but we were soon on the quayside - where thankfully a full boatload of birders was waiting. I didn't envy them the trip back!
Many thanks to all the Obs staff: Deryk & Hollie, assistants Becca, Alan and Becci, ranger Claire for botanical guiding, and all the catering staff for superb meals - and plenty of seconds for Jamie.


Red-throated Diver
Gavia stellata Two off South Light, 8th. Two from Good Shepherd, 11th
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer One off South Light, 8th
Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Abundant offshore and frequent over the isle each day.
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus Nine seen from Good Shepherd, 11th.
*European Storm-Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus Four caught by obs. staff on the night of 6th. A remarkable 42 seen from Good Shepherd, 11th.
Northern Gannet Sula bassana Frequent offshore sightings from all points of the isle. Excellent views of the increasing colonies on both the north and west of the island and Sheep Rock on the boat trip, 10th.
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo Up to four per day noted on six days.
European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis Common and noted daily.
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Up to three per day noted on five days.
Canada Goose Branta canadensis Two on Meoness throughout the week. A real Fair Isle rarity, and often hard to tell from the sheep….
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope Up to 15 per day noted on 5 days, 6th - 10th.
Common Teal Anas crecca Up to four per day on four days, 5th - 9th.
Northern Pintail Anas acuta One on Buness, 5th. A good sighting for Fair Isle.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula A female seen, sometimes with Wigeon, on 6th & 7th was another unusual wildfowl sp for the isle.
Common Eider Somateria mollissima Common just offshore - nice to see some quite smart drakes in the loafing flocks.
*Merlin Falco columbarius A remarkable 13 (and probably more) sightings during the week, including a superb female in the hand. Probably more Merlins in the week than we've seen on any of our trips anywhere in the world!
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Up to three per day on 7 days, 5th - 11th. Also a dead one with a non-Fair Isle ring, FP 10357. We await its history!
(Northern) Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Noted 6th, 8th & 9th, max 15 on 9th.
(European) Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria Noted daily, max c70 on 6th.
(Greater) Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Noted daily, max 13 on 10th.
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Noted daily, max 7 on 5th.
Common Redshank Tringa totanus Noted daily, max 42 on 5th.
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus One over Vaasetter on 5th.
(Ruddy) Turnstone Arenaria interpres Noted five days, 5th - 10th, max 27 on 10th
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Noted daily, max 18 on 10th.
Red Knot Calidris canutus Noted 5th on Buness, and at South Harbour on 6th & 9th, max 4 on 6th.
Sanderling Calidris alba One in North Haven on 7th.
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima At least one seen from boat trip round the island on 10th
Dunlin Calidris alpina Noted daily, max 8 on 9th.
Ruff Philomachus pugnax Singles on 6th, 8th & 9th.
Great Skua Catharacta skua Common around the isle, noted daily.
Arctic Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius parasiticus One from the Good Shepherd on 11th.
Common (Mew) Gull Larus canus Noted daily, max 12 at South Light on 8th.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus Common, noted daily.
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Common, noted daily.
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Singles on 5th, 7th & 8th.
(Black-legged) Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla Singles offshore on 6th (imm) and 10th (ad).
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea Two distantly, west from South Light on 6th.
Common Guillemot Uria aalge Noted six days, max 13 on 10th.
Razorbill Alca torda Noted five days, max six on 10th.
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle Frequent round coast. Most birds in winter plumage.
(Atlantic) Puffin Fratercula arctica One from Good Shepherd, 11th.
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia Noted daily - mostly wild-type Rock Doves around the crofts.
Common Swift Apus apus One flying over Utra on 5th was a late record.
(Eurasian) Sky Lark Alauda arvensis Widespread. Noted daily.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Noted five days, max 15 on 5th, including some settling on crofts.
*White Wagtail Motacilla alba alba Noted four dyas, 4th - 10th.
*Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrelli Noted daily
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis One heard flying over on 5th.
*Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Abundant; noted daily.
*Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus Abundant, even inland and around crofts; noted daily.
(Winter) Wren Troglodytes troglodytes The very rufous Fair Isle subspecies noted each day except 6th.
Common (Eurasian) Blackbird Turdus merula One around the obs. garden each day was an unusual (at this time) seemingly long-term stayer.
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Very early birds noted on four dates, 4th-6th and 10th, max 5 on 5th & 6th.
*Song Thrush Turdus philomelos One on 10th and two on 11th.
Whinchat Saxicola rubetra Seen on three dates at Quoy - singles on 5th & 8th, with two there on 10th.
*Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Seen daily, including many bright and 'three-pudding' Greenland birds (who does that remind us of?), max 40 on 5th.
Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina One at Shirva on 8th - thanks to Gwyneth for summoning us by phone to catch up with this very yellow individual.
*Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Noted daily. Max six on several dates.
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita One or two around the obs. , gully and plantation. Like the Blackbird, unusual at this time, and seemingly long-term stayers.
*Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla A male in the hand while we waited for the boat on the 11th.
*Garden Warbler Sylvia borin Noted six days, 4th - 10th, max four on 5th.
Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis Singles noted on four dates, 5th - 10th.
*Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca Up to two noted on four dates, 5th - 9th.
Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria Up to two of theis 'tree-pudding' warbler noted, usually in Chalet/Barkland area, on six dates, 4th - 10th.
Goldcrest Regulus regulus Noted five dates, max six on 7th.
*European Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca Singles noted on 4th, 7th and 11th.
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix Noted five dates, max three on 10th.
Common Raven Corvus corax Noted daily, max six (possibly eight) on 9th. Seemed to be two families of four around the isle.
Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris Common; noted daily.
Lapland Bunting (Longspur) Calcarius lapponicus Two at Vaasetter on 9th.
Twite Carduelis flavirostris Abundant. Noted daily.
Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus The best year we've had for these 'unpretentious' birds. Noted six days, max five (at least) on 5th. Three together in the scope on rocks at Skaddan on 10th made an unusual sight.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Noted in small numbers daily.
*Birds seen 'in the hand'.

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus Several seen daily
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena Three seen briefly off South Light
European Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus Common. Noted daily.


Plaice Pleuronectes platessa Live one (!) seen well from the quay in North Haven
Sand-eel sp. Ammodytes sp. Seen in North Haven

Peacock Inachis io Two on 6th. Only a few seen per year in most years on Fair Isle, so a good record.
Red admiral Vanessa atalantas Singles on 5th & 6th.
Painted lady Cynthia cardui Single on 9th.

Northern Rustic Standfussiana lucernea One in the lounge (!) on 10th.
Large Yellow Underwing Noctua pronuba Single in trap on 7th.
Autumnal Rustic Paradiarsa glareosa Single in trap on 7th.
Square-spot Rustic Xestia xanthographa Single in trap on 6th.
Antler Moth Cerapteryx graminis Singles in trap on 6th - 7th.
Rosy Rustic Hydraecia micacea Two in trap on 6th - 7th.

Shetland Bumblebee Bombus muscorum agricolae An excellent series of records. Noted 4 days, max three on 7th.
Devil's Coach Horse Staphylinus olens One on 7th towards North Light.
Bumblebee Hoverfly Eristalis intricaria Identified by obs. staff. Noted 6th & 7th, max three on 7th.


Edible Sea Urchin Echinus esculentus Two seen in Hesti Geo, 8th.
Beadlet Anemone Actinia equina Several at South Light.

© The Travelling Naturalist 2004