Friday, 10 October 2014

I'm a Creeper, I'm a weird record, What the heck am I doing here, I don't belong here.

8th-9th October
The star bird of the 9th.
If the excitement of a Barn Owl didn’t exactly set the pages of Birdforum alight, it’s fair to say that the next couple of days would also be unlikely to see any charters winging our way, and yet the birding was some of the most enjoyable of the year so far.
With a light to fresh easterly wind (NE at first veering SE later), it felt good – and it was. Thrushes were the most obvious arrivals on 8th, with the final Log totals of 1921 Song Thrush (a particularly good count), 876 Redwing, 129 Blackbird, 126 Robin, 61 Blackcap and 46 Goldcrest giving an idea of the bulk of the birds to be found.
A decent number of birds have been ringed during the current fall, including this female Sparrowhawk. (photo: Ciaran Hatsell)
It wasn’t long before highlights started to appear amongst them, with a Buzzard first seen over the Hill Dyke then a Great Grey Shrike found behind Lower Leogh.
Buzzards are less than annual on Fair Isle, so this was a good record. (photo: Rochard Cope)

The Great Grey Shrike with prey (photo: Ciaran Hatsell)
Other species still present included an Olive-backed Pipit at Pund, with possibly the same bird later in the Gully (both sightings are taken as referring to the same bird as was seen briefly at Hjukni Geo on 7th for now), the 3 Tundra Bean Geese (seen properly today!), a Little Bunting at Pund (possibly a different individual to the one at Walli Burn on 7th), a Yellow-browed Warbler at the Obs, Slavonian Grebe in South Harbour, the two roaming male Pochard, 3 Lapland Bunting and yesterday’s Dotterel was joined by a second.
Rarer than Lancey: 2 Pochards on Easter Lother Water.
A few new species included Redstart, Stonechat, Quail and a male Gadwall (in a good current spell for wildfowl), whilst other healthy counts included 476 Pink-footed, 112 Greylag and 95 Barnacle Geese, 24 Jack Snipe, 139 Snipe, a wonderful 13 Short-eared Owl, 34 Ring Ouzel, 68 Wheatear, 144 Brambling, 25 Reed Bunting and 2 Tree Pipit (showing that they aren’t all OBPs!). The day was lacking that one big rarity until just after 1pm, when the run to School to pick Grace up resulted in a major Fair Isle rarity being found at Upper Stoneybrek. The fact that it was a Blue Tit may not have been what people were expecting (although it turned out to be part of a decent arrival in the Northern Isles), but as it’s only Fair Isle’s 13th, and just the second record since 1989 (following one in 2012) we weren’t complaining.
Much rarer than Lancey!
A calm morning on 9th gave way to an increasing westerly breeze, although the early morning rain cleared giving a cool, but pleasant day in the field. It was immediately obvious that there’d been a clear out of thrushes (with counts of 618 Song Thrush, 23 Blackbird and 7 Ring Ouzel for example showing large decreases from yesterday) and most other species also diminishing in number. The only species to show a significant increase was Brambling, with 169 Logged (thanks largely to a flock of 105 in North Naaversgill). Familiar faces included the Blue Tit (which reappeared at Midway, assuming it was the same bird…), Olive-backed Pipit (at Ditfield, with another possible not far away – I suspect it may only be a matter of time before more than one is confirmed), Little Bunting at Chalet, the Buzzard again floating about, the two Pochard still roaming, Hen Harrier, Slavonian Grebe and a good selection of geese, with 538 Pink-feet, 149 Barnacle and now 4 Tundra Beans, whilst a Shoveler added to the recent duck list.
Olive-backed Pipit at Ditfield, showing better than the photo would suggest.
Slavonian Grebe in South Harbour - presumbaly the bird seen off Hjukni Geo a couple of days ago.
 
The three Tundra Bean Geese at Barkland (another single was seen on Meoness and lingered with Pink-feet for a while before heading south).
New highlights were hard to come by, although Yellow-browed Warblers increased to 3 and a Long-eared Owl showed well near South Light (from where a blue Fulmar was seen offshore), that was until late in the afternoon, when a visiting group called with the news of a Treecreeper at South Light. A frantic twitch later saw most people getting views of this impressively frosty northern bird, which relocated to nearby Smirri Geo, as it scurried around seemingly quite contentedly on the lichen covered rocks.
The mystery bird from the photo at the top of the blog - 'Northern' Treecreeper, showing it's pale 'frosty' upperparts.

Very clean and white with a dazzling white supercillium, most (possibly all) of the previous Shetland records have thought to be Northern 'familiaris' birds, including the eight previous Fair Isle records (making this species even rarer than Blue Tit on the island, with previous records in 1906, 1913, 1959, 1980, 1987, 1993, 1998 and 2010).
So with the recent highlights reading: Barn Owl, Treecreeper, Blue Tit and Buzzard it’s been a strange few days, with that list looking more reminiscent of a pleasant woodland walk on the UK mainland than the peak of autumn migration on Fair Isle, although I’m sure it’s not over yet (but will the next decent bird be of locally-exciting calibre of Jay or something a bit more hoped for by our visitors…).
Geese feeding below the Shetland flag.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Barn Storm

5th-7th October
Storm 10 at times: the view from the Obs this morning (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
After the excitement of the White’s Thrush on 4th, things quietened down on 5th, with lingering scarcities including a Bluethroat and 2 Yellow-browed Warblers and a fresh southerly breeze not encouraging that many migrants, although 40 Whooper Swans were impressive and a Slavonian Grebe off Hjukni Geo was the first of the year.
A very strong SE wind on 6th made birding difficult, with severe gale force winds later in the day being accompanied by rain, but it was obvious that birds were coming in and the day finished with high counts including 570 Song Thrush, 293 Redwing, 36 Goldcrest and 25 Robin, whilst highlights included 2 Little Buntings, a Dotterel (with the Golden Plover flock on Lerness) and some decent wildfowl movement that included 2 Pochard (a rare bird on Fair Isle, with less than 60 records) and the first Scaup of the year (a smart male in the Havens, that then appeared on the cliffs of Easter Lother).
After first being seen in the Havens, it's possible that this bird was maybe attacked by Bonxies, forcing it onto the atypical habitat of the cliffs. What was very possibly the same bird was present on 7th off Hjukni Geo. A Long-tailed Duck seen on Suka Mire and Easter Lother on 7th was also a species in less than expected habitat. (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
The 7th opened with the promise of birds to come, but it was clear that it would have to wait as the driving rain continued and the SE winds were absolutely lashing the island, reaching Storm 10 and making walking pretty difficult, let alone birding. We did manage to get a bit of goose scanning in and picked out 4 Barnacle Geese darvic rings (which are likely to be birds ringed in Svalbard, but we’ll update you on those later), amongst the 139 Barnacle Geese, with 490 Pink-feet and 94 Greylag also present, along with 22 Whooper Swans.
The Barnacle Geese have remained relatively settled below Shirva for a couple of days, allowing good opportunities for scoping them.
The rain eventually cleared at about 3pm, the wind eased slightly (30mph+ still wasn’t exactly calm) and a frantic dash around the census areas as the light began to fade saw the slightly more sheltered west cliffs heaving with birds, although viewing was still difficult. An Olive-backed Pipit put in a brief appearance at Hjukni Geo, a Little Bunting roamed south east and other highlights included a late Quail, a Yellow-browed Warbler at the Obs, the Dotterel (which flew south down the island), Hen Harrier, Lapland Bunting, Long-eared Owl and both Pochard still present on Da Water. It was the number of birds that was most notable though as, even allowing for the conditions, Log totals included 864 Song Thrush, 346 Redwing, 72 Brambling, 32 Robin, 22 Blackbird, 15 Siskin, 25 Woodpigeon, 19 Jack Snipe, 59 Snipe, 10 Woodcock (the first of the autumn), 9 Reed Bunting, 5 Dunnock, 3 ‘North-western’ Common Redpolls and single Jackdaw (the first of the autumn) and Fieldfare. Not bad!
Good numbers of Jack Snipe were seen today, but getting good views was another matter altogether, so well done to Ciaran for this picture.
Having warned at the previous evening’s Log that we could expect almost anything to turn up with the current weather, it was still a surprise to receive a call from John Day (a friend from my days working at the Lodge back when it were all nowt but trees) late in the afternoon saying he’d just seen a Barn Owl. What’s more his description (‘in the field with the Barnacle Geese and the two cows’) meant it was right behind me as I had just started to walk up Malcolm’s Head. I turned round and started getting the news out and, as I was doing so, it flew from the burn and headed towards me, flopping regularly into the grass. It spent some time out in the open before dropping into Steensi Geo, where it appeared to roost on the cliffs. An amazing record and well worth the pint I owed John for adding a species to my Fair Isle list.
With just five previous records, this is a major Fair Isle bird. The fact that they all occured between 1924 and 1958 (and the last three were all seen by the same person) means that it ranks pretty high on the 'most-wanted' list of staff and islanders for those species on the Fair Isle list and it attracted a reasonable twitch. Interestingly, all bar one of the previous records was also an alba-type white-breasted bird rather than the perhaps more expected dark-breasted guttata. It really is a bizarre and sensational record, but where has this bird come from?
Amazingly, one of our guests had given a talk on Barn Owls on Sunday evening. I'm not sure if it's the first talk on that subject in FIBO's history, but the remarkable coincidence of the occurence of this bird so soon after has led to calls for a talk on Siberian Blue Robin soon!

As a postscript to the amazing Barn Owl story, as I was sat at the base of Malcolm's Head keeping an eye on the owl as it sat in the field in front of me, a large flock of Pink-feet went up having seen approaching 'twitchers'. I swung my camera round, managed to get one in-focus shot of the flock and then went back to keeping an eye on the owl. It was only when looking at the photo back in the office that I noticed that there seem to be three Tundra Bean Geese in the shot! Can you spot them?
So, storm force winds, a Fair Isle mega and a major thrush fall, and yet I think the main excitement could still be to come from this week yet…

Sunday, 5 October 2014

All White on the night

27th September - 4th October
Well, it’s been an interesting few days since the last update, with some strong westerly winds and the odd bout of easterlies that hadn’t really delivered on their promise (to Fair Isle at least). There’s no denying that it’s been tough going at times, with White’s Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Yellow-rumped Warbler not far north of us and Eye-browed Thrush and Pechora Pipit gracing our neighboursto the south, whilst top-quality rarities seemed largely to pass us by. Various theories were put forward (including: ‘the wrong kind of weather’, ‘a curse’ or having had ‘too much good fortune in the spring’), but we were all hopeful it was just one of those things and everything would come good. There’s certainly been no flagging from the Wardening team, with double-census on most days, whilst some really keen visitors have also covered many miles of ditches, fields and cliffs, but sometimes things just don’t go your way.
There have been arrivals of common migrants including good numbers of Brambling.
There have still been some decent birds about, with old favourites including the Rose-coloured Starling lingering to 3rd (when it was seen looking rather bedraggled after some heavy rain and poor weather), the Bluethroat at Pund throughout, daily records of up to 5 Yellow-browed Warblers and up to 2 Common Rosefinch (to 30th September). New scarcities included Wryneck and Barred Warbler on 29th, a Little Bunting on 30th, the first Grey Phalarope of the year on 2nd (a bird on the sea off Da Burrian) and 2 Richard’s Pipits on 3rd (one to 4th) with other migrants of note including a Hen Harrier from 1st, a peak of 122 Redwing on 30th Sep and the first North-western Common Redpoll of the autumn on 3rd.
Richard's Pipit in the Parks, the first sign of new passerine arrivals for a while.
The lack of rostrata/islandica-type Redpolls had been a bit of a surprise given the westerly winds, with other birds from that direction clearly arriving, including a surge in Wheatear numbers that peaked at 182 on 28th (most of which were leucorhoa ‘Greenland’ birds), the first Whooper Swans of the autumn (from 27th Sep and peaking at 30 on 29th) and daily Pink-footed Goose records. The latter benefitted from a relatively calm day on 4th, with several skeins on the move (a large number of which spent at least part of the day resting on Mire of Vatnagaard) and a final total of 1105 logged (along with 72 Barnacle Geese, 22 Greylag, 68 Wigeon and 10 Red-breasted Merganser).
Whooper Swan passage over Fair Isle is quite variable, but these were part of an impressive group on 29th which toured the island, providing a wonderful spectacle as they trumpetted there way around.
The 4th also brought a large amount of rain, which made census impractical for the morning (we did try, but with rain-soaked bins and birds clearly keeping to cover, it proved a thankless task), but by about 3pm, the downpour had finally stopped and census was on, surely this was the day that Fair Isle would wake from its temporary slumbers…
Early signs were slow (although singles of Pomarine Skua, Sooty Shearwater, Storm Petrel and blue Fulmar were seen from the Good Shepherd) with a Little Bunting at Chalet then Pund the pick of the crop, but it was good to be birding in calm, dry conditions and it really felt promising. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a certain element of surprise when Richard phoned to say ‘WHITE'S THRUSH near Wester Lother’! The Obs machine was put into full effect rounding up people from across the island and this notorious skulker, which often leads potential observers on a merry dance went on to not only show well to everyone, but also to treat us to a merry dance!
The White's Thrush was found by Richard as it fed on the slope behind Wester Lother. It spent most of the time out in the open, often just under this ridge, where good scope views were obtained. Photo: Ciaran Hatsell.
The 13th record for Fair Isle, they are always an absolutely fantastic bird to see, with Ciaran’s video below (taken not long before dusk), showing the species curious ‘bobbing’ motion when feeding. So, despite a few quiet days, things are definitely looking up, with a lot of happy staff (none more so than Ciaran who was marooned on the ‘wrong’ Farne Island when one turned up there in 2012; although spare a thought for poor David Steel, his colleague on Brownsman at the time, who had just been visiting Fair Isle, but left the day before the White’s Thrush was found) and guests last night. It could be an interesting spell coming up as well, with some fresher southerly winds giving way to a few days of SE winds (gale force at times), bringing a lot of rain, but maybe more birds…  
video

Friday, 26 September 2014

Whale Force

23rd - 26th September
Red-throated Pipit at Setter, a rare opportunity to see a red-throated individual in autumn (photo by Ciaran Hatsell)
My last prediction proved hopelessly optimistic, as the westerly winds kicked in early and very few new migrants made arrival. New highlights were a Richard’s Pipit at Field then Setter (23rd & 24th) and a Short-toed Lark in a mobile Skylark flock around the back of North Naaversgill, with the Red-throated Pipit (until 24th) and Rose-coloured Starling (until 25th at least) both still proving popular. Other scarcities included the Bluethroat (until 25th at least), up to 5 Yellow-browed Warbler, 2 Common Rosefinch and a (unringed) Barred Warbler (23rd).
The Rose-coloured Starling seems to have settled in the area around the Walli Burn.
With the winds from the NW, it was no surprise that goose passage picked up and 764 Pink-feet, 56 Barnacles and 5 Greylag were recorded on 24th, with 11 Lapland Buntings also likely to have come from the same direction.
With the increase in the wind, any sheltered areas of coast have been attracting birds like these Shags in North Haven, although there have been no rarer species brought in yet.
By the 25th, new arrivals were more or less restricted to a Goldeneye (the first of the autumn), with numbers of most common species decreasing and just a few geese still passing through.
Up to 10 Jack Snipe have been counted in recent days as the ditches are thoroughly searched for migrants.
The highlight for most visitors during this period though were twitchable Killer Whales on consecutive days on 24th and 25th, with the first day in particular proving exciting as they first moved north up the island before appearing around South Harbour, where everyone got to catch up with them. A Risso’s Dolphin (24th) and 2 Porpoise (25th) added to the cetacean sightings.
Although they normally either motor past the island or stop to prey on seals, these Killer Whales appeared to be hunting fish offshore (on 25th at least) if the number of Gannets feeding around them was anything to go by. (photo by Ciaran Hatsell).
Nice though whales and dolphins are, most people’s thoughts are now firmly fixed on the birding, with the current gale-force westerly winds having great potential to bring something across the Atlantic, although the odds are always long when hoping for an American vagrant. An exhausted Red-eyed Vireo at Sumburgh on 25th certainly boded well, but it may well be tomorrow before conditions improve enough to actually see anything. Sunday looks promising as the winds start to drop, then Monday and Tuesday could see some lighter SE winds before a return to the weather coming in from the Atlantic later in the week. In an ideal world, this would mean we’ll be having American rarities sandwiching a nice eastern gem or two, but as my predictions have been woefully inaccurate so far this autumn, I’ll stick to waiting and seeing what turns up…
Will it be the wild Atlantic or the stormy North Sea that our next rarity has crossed to reach us?...

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Lance Encounter

21st-22nd September
A strong NW wind on Sunday brought an unsurprising lack of birds, although going against the grain somewhat was a smart Olive-backed Pipit found lurking in long grass around the Quoy allotment, whilst a good spread of lingering migrants made for a pleasant day in the field.
Although incredibly elusive at times, the OBP at Quoy could be watched feeding in the grass down to around 2 metres.
Monday opened very calm, the perfect conditions for a bit of drifty movement and early signs were promising, with a Barred Warbler and Reed Warbler trapped in the morning (further Barred Warbler sightings during the day at Barkland, School, Vaila’s Trees, Schoolton, Burkle and Haa were all thought to be the same wandering individual). Whilst there didn’t seem to be huge numbers of new birds in, it felt good and, sure enough, an Arctic Warbler was found near North Shirva during morning census. Although not exactly a ‘Fair Isle special’, this is about the 90th record of this species for the island and it is still not easy to connect with in most of the UK (in my home county of Durham for example, I reckon there’s only been one record since I saw my first on Hartlepool Headland back in 1996 – there are probably more people who’ve seen Eastern Crowned Warbler in the county than Arctic!).
Perhaps only on Fair Isle would a BB rarity be a ‘good sign’ rather than the day’s stand-alone highlight, but we were certainly hopeful for more and, just as hope seemed to be fading with the light (and the onset of light rain), visiting birders Micky Maher, Martin Culshaw and Phil Harris found Fair Isle’s 89th Lanceolated Warbler near the roadside between Midway and Upper Leogh. Thanks to their swift reporting, an entire Obs-full of guests was able to enjoy this fearless locustella giving great views before dinner (we were only slightly late back, but the kitchen staff were very understanding again!).
The Lancie showed very well (although I only managed a couple of rubbish record shots as it hid in a hole in a wall) often giving views down to just a few feet away. There will be much better  photos from other people to come!
The atmosphere at Log in the evening was understandably merry as people compared photos and relived the encounter, whilst the day’s other birds made for an impressive back-up cast with Olive-backed Pipit, Red-throated Pipit, Rose-coloured Starling, Bluethroat, 3 Yellow-browed Warbler, 2 Common Rosefinch and 5 Lapland Bunting all out there to be enjoyed. Also new for the autumn were 2 Linnets and a skein of 16 Barnacle Geese.
Yellow-browed Warbler at Quoy, part of an impressive supporting cast of birds on a really good day's birding.
The forecast is for continued westerlies, seemingly forever, but we’re doing pretty well at the minute and there are some birds that seem to have a habit of turning up on the ‘wrong’ winds, so maybe something like Citrine Wagtail today and Pechora Pipit tomorrow (when the wind gets more NW) could be on the cards, and perhaps later in the week we’ll continue  our theme of recent autumns of an American passerine making landfall somewhere on the island (just out of interest, it's the second anniversary of the Magnolia Warbler today)…

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Our list is like a Red Rose.

19th-20th September
The 19th saw the last day of the spell of easterlies that had delivered some good numbers of common migrants, an impressive display of scarcities but just two additions to the year list (Grey Plover and Yellow-browed Warbler) and just one description species (Short-toed Lark). Another good day of birding saw the first Corncrake and Ring Ouzel of the autumn, along with a new Bluethroat, 4 Red-breasted Flycatchers, 8 Yellow-browed Warblers, Little Bunting, Barred Warbler, 3 Common Rosefinch, 13 Jack Snipe and 2 Grey Plover, along with a similar number of common migrants to previous days; so despite the lack of rarities, nobody was complaining at the quality of the birding.
This smart breeding-plumaged Grey Plover has been lingering around the Skadan for a few days. Contrary to what I said earlier in the week, there was a record in 2013 (two flyover birds on 29th September), but 2012 was a blank year, so it's always a good one for the year list.
The 20th finally saw the winds change and, although NW is not a direction usually associated with good birds, it often happens that on Fair Isle a switch in the wind direction delivers something good. The early signs were interesting, with a skein of Pink-footed Geese heard over the Obs in the morning entirely expected given the weather, but three new Yellow-browed Warblers trapped in the garden were less predictable.
Three Yellow-browed Warblers in an hour was a good return for the morning's ringing efforts. This was one of two trapped the previous day (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
It wasn’t long before the first new good bird was found, when a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling was discovered near Steensi Geo before setting off on a wander of the south of the island. 

Rose-coloured Starling. Just the second since 2008, with an autumn juvenile in 2011 the most recent record (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
The rest of the day produced another good spread of migrants, although mostly lingering birds with 2 Bluethroats (at Barkland and Quoy), Little Bunting (still at Lower Leogh), 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers, 7 Yellow-browed Warblers, 2 Common Rosefinch and the Gadwall reappeared. There was also the first Grey Wagtail of the autumn, but most common migrants decreased in number. By 5pm, the wind had increased, people were drifting back towards the Obs and thoughts were maybe starting to veer slightly from birding to eating, until a ‘red’ was added to the ‘rose’ for our list of highlights for the day, appropriately enough by our very own Lancashire lad Ciaran, when he found a rather smart Red-throated Pipit (maybe not a BB rare anymore, but rare enough nowadays to warrant the red font I think) in the Setter tattie rig. Although elusive at times, everyone was eventually able to get decent views and we were just about back in time for dinner; another good Fair Isle day.
The Red-throated Pipit being a bit elusive but showing off several of its main identification features (pale-based bill, mantle stripes, lack of primary projection, streaked rump). There were none in 2011 and 2012, one in autumn 2013 and this is the first of the year, reflecting a change in fortunes for this formerly regular spring migrant. It was the second quality addition to the year list on the 20th, taking us to 202 for the year so far.

Friday, 19 September 2014

18th September

With a wet and murky start to the day, things started off pretty slowly, but as the cloud lifted and the conditions brightened up, more new birds were found and this lovely spell of easterlies continued to intrigue.
Whilst still lacking in a new genuine rarity, there were clearly more birds coming in, with 2 Bluethroats (which inhabited the radically different habitats of an area of Puffin burrows on Buness and the School car park) and a Short-toed Lark (on Ward Hill – after yesterday’s Richard’s Pipit, I wonder what might be found up there when the cloud eventually clears from the high ground) the scarcest new arrivals. There was also still an obliging Little Bunting, 2 Yellow-browed Warblers, 2 Barred Warblers, a Common Rosefinch (with sightings at Kenaby and Leogh before a bird roosted at the Obs, so perhaps more than one was present) and 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers (with yesterday’s ringed bird being joined by an adult at the Obs, with the two spending a lot of time chasing each other around the garden). The Gadwall was also present, so deserves a mention in the blog, although I appreciate that Fair Isle is one of the few places where it would sit alongside the previously mentioned species.
Scarce chats are always a joy to watch even if, like this young Bluethroat, they lack some of the glamour of a spring male. We've been told that these are the first Bluethroats of the autumn in the UK.
Many of the common migrants were present in similar numbers to yesterday, although Blackcaps had increased to 34, Lesser Whitethroats to 8 and Jack Snipe to 8 (the latter count a sure sign that ditches are being well checked for rare, creeping warblers). There were also at least two Lesser Redpolls, with one of them trapped in the afternoon (this species is scarce on Fair Isle, with most records coming when there are arrivals of Mealy Redpoll, so the fact that the only redpoll records today were Lessers is unusual).
Perhaps also of note was the first Reed Bunting of the autumn, the first 2 Grasshopper Warbler since the 1st of the month and an increase in Dunnocks to 6; is it clutching at straws to describe that as a fall of locustellas, bunting and accentors and suggest that a similar theme (but with different species) tomorrow would be very popular indeed?

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