Sunday, 20 April 2014


17th-19th April
Is that the sound of spring springing (the weather has certainly felt pleasantly warm, with a southerly wind for the last couple of days), the gambolling of lambs, the upwards trajectory of Sunderland’s season following the ‘mini-revival’ of the last couple of games (although admittedly still being bottom of the league suggests ‘upwards trajectory’ might be a bit strong), or perhaps most likely, it's the sound of Wardens excitedly bouncing up and down as the forecast looks rather promising for next week, with potentially 7 days of easterlies to come. I’m confident enough of something good that I’m going to extend my Lenten alcohol abstinence to the next Fair Isle tick or BB rare we get!
Fulmars on the cliffs at Easter Lother (there are also a few Puffins tucked away in there). Seabirds are starting to get serious now - not long until the breeding season is upon us.
There’s been nothing extraordinarily unusual during the last three days, but the birding has been quite enjoyable none the less. Wader passage provided a couple of year ticks with Black-tailed Godwit (18th-19th) and Greenshank (19th), along with Whimbrel (singles on 18th and 19th) and an increase in Golden Plover to 36 on 19th.
The other new species for the year were Sparrowhawk (18th, with the only other raptor a male Merlin on 17th) and Stock Dove on 17th-19th (it took me three years to get Stock Dove on my Fair Isle list, so it’s always a good bird to see here). Other columbidae included a peak of 13 Woodpigeon and a new Collared Dove (19th).
A few more warblers included Blackcap (17th), 2 Willow Warbler (19th) and an increase in Chiffchaffs to 9 on 18th and 13 on 19th (with two of these singing); the lack of other warblers will presumably soon be rectified given the forecast. Other signs of spring included an increase in Sand Martins to 7 on 19th, when there were also 5 Swallows and 129 Wheatear (the largest count of the year so far). Thrush numbers also showed small signs of arriving in the increasingly promising conditions, with 3 each of Ring Ouzel and Blackbird, a Song Thrush and 19 Redwing on 19th. Finches were also on the move in small numbers, with the second Goldfinch of the year (18th-19th), the first Common Redpoll for a while (19th), Crossbill (17th-18th), and up to five Chaffinch, 3 Brambling, 3 Siskin, and 2 Linnet.
Male Linnet at the Obs (19th). Will the reasonable spring showing of this species result in the first confirmed breeding on Fair Isle this year?
Other migrants included 2 Black Redstart and Grey Wagtail (18th), Goldcrest (18th-19th), 3 White Wagtails (on both 18th and 19th), single Water Rails on 18th and 19th, up to 20 Snow Bunting, 2 Reed Bunting (17th and 19th) and a small passage of corvids, including a peak of 13 Carrion Crow and 4 Rook (18th) and 2 Jackdaw.
More wintry were 2 Pink-footed Geese (17th-19th) brought in by strong westerlies on the first date and the lingering juvenile Kumlien’s and Iceland Gulls (both to 18th), with other hangers-on including the Tree Sparrow at Haa (to 19th) and Lapland Bunting (a bird at several locations in the North on 19th was probably the bird seen earlier in the month at Suka Mire).
We have a sunny day with southerlies forecast on Sunday (no doubt another ‘it feels good for a raptor’ day, which so far haven’t proved too successful) then the easterlies start to kick in. Will it live up to the hype? Well we’ve certainly got hope, which is half the fun (kind of like being a Sunderland fan).

Thursday, 17 April 2014

West and Recuperation

12th-16th April
After a rather frantic start to the season in terms of birding, things slowed down considerably with the onset of some strong (gale force at times) westerly winds, bringing with them heavy rain at times.  The break in this was the 15th, with a lighter southerly wind bringing a few birds in, but otherwise it was a bit of a slog at times.
The view west from North Light - as seen in the opening credits of 'Shetland'! Windy weather has created some impressive seas, although the gales and rain of recent days may have also been responsible for the apparent failure of the Peregrine nest.
The mini-fall of the 15th brought the first Tree Sparrow of the year (found by Tommy shortly after his arrival back from holiday), along with 12 Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler (to 16th), Blackcap (with another having been seen on 13th), three Swallow, Sand Martin (with another on 16th), 13 Woodpigeon, a flyover Redpoll sp? and light corvid passage that produced 3 Rook and 5 Carrion Crow (with a hybrid Hoody and 2 Jackdaws the following day). There were also increases in other species that had been lingering, which included counts of 9 Robin, 14 Dunnock, 5 Chaffinch, 20 Snow Bunting and 65 Twite, whilst the Lapland Bunting in Suka Mire may have been the bird seen a few days ago there. Wheatears arrived back with a bang (or a ‘chack’ at least) on 15th, with counts not having not exceeded 13 until then, when numbers leapt to 85. Puffins were also back in numbers and have been coming ashore at their regular haunts – it’s good to have them back and Grace and I will no doubt be out one evening soon to chat to them on Roskillie!
Tree Sparrow (left) at the Haa.
The Haa sparrow flock also contains a white-tailed male House Sparrow and this rather odd individual (photo: Deryk Shaw).
Other sightings of note during the last few days included the first two Whimbrel of the year (in Gilsetter on 14th), Jack Snipe (13th), 2 White Wagtail (14th-15th), Linnet (13th-15th), 2 Merlin (16th) and the lingering Kumlien’s Gull (to 16th), with an Iceland Gull as well on 13th and the general increase in the summering residents included a peak of 287 Meadow Pipits on 16th. Interesting wildfowl were represented by Shelduck (12th), Long-tailed Duck and Goldeneye (both 14th), whilst a Cormorant offshore on 16th was the first of the month.
Bonxies are back in good numbers now, with this individual joining the gulls outside the Obs squabbling over kitchen scraps.
Other interest during the period was provided by ‘Shetland’; as justice caught up with the Fair Isle murderer and we can all sleep easily at night again! Those of you have been to the island will have noticed a few incongruities (the shots of the inside of the Chapel were disappointing as we think ours is much prettier than the one they used, and it was odd to see telephone wires on what was meant to be Fair Isle), but it wasn’t meant to be a documentary and we enjoyed watching it. It was good to see a couple of Fair Islanders (including Alice our childcarer) making it in as background extras as well (I have to say, the fame hasn’t gone to her head though). The good news is that they have commissioned another series, so maybe we’ll see Jimmy and his team here again, I’m sure they’ll be welcome (although they might find the DirectFlight staff having words with them after rather unkindly referring to the ‘death plane’!).
Anyway, back to birds; it’s been steady away for the last few days, but with Dave Wheeler’s forecast for the weekend and beyond now reading: 'Rain and cloud at first on Saturday clearing later as fresh SW’ly winds become lighter E’ly. Sunday perhaps drier and brighter with light to moderate E’ly winds. Possibly staying mainly dry and bright through next week with mostly light winds, these mainly E’ly in direction' things may be about to get very interesting again. The second half of April can be pretty good anyway and with a few early migrants having pushed north already, I reckon there's got to be a good chance we'll pick up another description or two by next weekend (I'll take a punt on a rare lark as the highlight). We are of course open to visitors now and with a special rate of £50 (all inclusive) per person per night available until 11th May, it could be worth a gamble...

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Meet the Team

9th-11th April
Fair Isle Wren (by Mark Rayment). This bird, in the North Haven, is probably the most popular Fair Isle Wren in the world with photographers and provides a 'sub-species tick' for many visitors.
A quiet few days as the westerly wind increased and slowed migration right down. And, with today’s Shipping Forecast giving a ‘Storm 10’ warning in Fair Isle, along with squally showers, it’s unlikely there’ll be much found today, but who knows…
Gales and rain aren't ideal weather as the lambing season is picking up pace, although at least the temperature is remaining relatively good for the time of year.
The light wildfowl passage (although Fair Isle is never going to be rivalling Slimbridge for duck numbers in fairness) brought the first Tufted Duck of the year to the island and the Pochard and Goldeneye both lingered to 10th. Almost all common migrant numbers decreased (Fieldfares falling from their peak of over 600 earlier in the week to just 5 on 11th for example), with the only increases being shown by Collared Dove (to 3 on 10th), Jackdaw (3 on 9th-10th) and Siskin (the two increasingly fat males lingering in the Obs garden were added to by another on 11th), whilst a smart male Lapland Bunting was in Suka Mire on 9th. One of the Siskins and a Chaffinch were singing at the Obs on 10th, providing a nice flavour of spring, whilst a Peacock butterfly on 9th was an unusually early sighting of this not quite annual visitor. Guillemots still failed to provide much hope for the breeding season, with very few around and an occasional dead individual still being washed up on the beaches.
Spring Lapland Buntings are always a treat (by Ciaran Hatsell)

Purple Sandpiper (by Mark Rayment). South Harbour is providing great views of this species and Turnstone at the moment.
The regular sightings of Iceland Gull continued, with two on 9th and 11th and the Kumlien’s Gull was still present to 10th at least, with five Snow Buntings on 10th.
With the season now up and running, the new team are complete and settled in and it's all going well. They're a great bunch as some of you will hopefully find out when you visit this year and between them they'll be feeding us, keeping the Obs clean and tidy, looking after the kids (and us sometimes) and hopefully finding that first for Britain that Fair Isle must be due soon...
A 'Glitz and Glamour' themed party last night gave the team a chance to meet the islanders, with everybody seeming to enjoy themselves. Many thanks to everyone who came up from down the island, despite it being a very busy time, with the lambing starting to kick off.
The 2014 team, as they should look...
...and how they looked last night. Note the various interpretations of 'glitz and glamour'!
So, this is the 2014 season now ready to go, we're all looking forward to it and hope you are too.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nice weather and Ducks.

6th-8th April
Although there were a couple more additions to the year list in the form of Willow Warbler (7th-8th), and Goldfinch (at the Obs on 8th), the best bird in Fair Isle terms was the Pochard on Da Water (8th). With just 56 records (of 70 individuals), it’s not a common bird on Fair Isle and last year’s record was the first for six years, although there was also another male earlier this year at the Haa, so we’re going through a decent spell for them. Other wildfowl on the move included a Pink-footed Goose (6th-8th), Goldeneye (7th-8th) and Red-breasted Merganser (7th).
Almost as widely twitched as the Bluetail(s). Quack.
The most noticeable arrival were the Fieldfares, which after first being noted arriving late on 5th, peaked at 665 on 6th, with numbers then dwindling on later dates. Other migrants also started decreasing in amount, although there were still reasonable numbers of Robins and Dunnocks around. There were also decent counts of Meadow Pipit (195), Skylark (150), Woodpigeon (11 on 8th), Pied Wagtail (18 on 8th) and Wheatears cracked double figures for the first time with ten on 7th. Light corvid passage saw counts of six Carrion and 18 Hooded Crows (7th) and Jackdaw (6th, with 2 on 8th). 
Despite hundreds of Fieldfares being present, I've managed not to get a decent picture of any of them, sorry.
Small numbers of other birds around included up to 7 Goldcrest, counts of 8-14 Chiffchaff, Blackcap on 6th and 8th, Black Redstarts on 7th and 8th, up to 2 Siskin, 2 Linnet on 7th, Common Redpoll on 6th-8th, up to 12 Snow Buntings, Short-eared Owl, two Collared Dove (8th) and a blue Fulmar which passed over Ditfield on 6th.
It’s been a good spring for Jack Snipe, with a peak of four on 7th, there were daily sightings of Woodcock and Golden Plover increased to ten.
Two Iceland and a Kumlien’s Gull were lingering on 6th with one of the former still on 8th.
Breeding bird news included the resident Peregrine pair being joined by a third bird on the island, the first Gannet eggs noted on 7th, daily sightings of Bonxies and an increase in Puffins, with 20+ on 6th and 8th; still a long way to go, but pace should start picking up from now on.
So that’s the bird news up to date. I’ll leave any comment on the Fair Isle based episode of ‘Shetland’ that was on last night until everyone who’s recorded it has had the chance to watch it, but I don’t think I’d be giving away any major plot twists by saying my telescope made its anticipated TV debut!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Tarsigery Jiggery Pokery

3rd-5th April
Another good spell of birding saw a reasonable turnover of birds, plenty of migrants around and some more highlights. The outstanding one was a Red-flanked Bluetail in Swarzi Geo on 5th.
One of those 'wow' moments, when one of the birds flicking up onto the cliff face isn't a Robin.
The same bird as that on 30th March? Hmm, maybe! On the side of the argument favouring two birds: it's done well to hide unseen for five days given that we’re out censusing every day (including a day sticking to the coastline when we did the Tystie survey); after a couple of days of blasting SE winds it would have seemed more likely that if it was refound it would have been in the crofts, not still on the SE coast of the island; it would be Britain’s longest staying spring Bluetail (I think); there’s been a decent turnover of birds since the 30th; two rares in close proximity aren't unprecedented (there were two White's Thrushes on the same day on Fair Isle's east coast a few autumn's ago).
However, it appears very similar in plumage to the previous sighting (although I’m not sure how much variability there would be at this time of year;  photos online and in the British Birds article by Paul Leader on ageing Asian chats would suggest that finding obvious plumage differences between two individuals could be tricky); it’s not far from the previous sighting; and spring Bluetails are still pretty rare, so a second spring one in a week would maybe be asking too much? Unless the photos throw up any obvious differences (or clinching similarities), then we’ll probably never know for sure, but we'll submit both sightings with our thoughts and we'll see what BBRC decide.
What a lovely bird. Ciaran certainly thought that this individual was a touch bluer than 'his' bird. I realise that I'll not get much sympathy for having to decide whether our two Bluetail sightings this spring are the same bird or not!
The 5th also saw the arrival of the first Bonxies and Puffins (which are later than usual this year, but for the second year in a row arrived back on the same date as each other) and the first Swallow, Sand Martin and two Blackcap of the year. The most notable migrant arrival though were Fieldfares, with a gradual trickle during the day becoming a deluge later when the final total was logged at 434. There were also notable increases in some other species, with 81 Blackbird, 37 Redwing, 24 Chiffchaff, 165 Meadow Pipit, 13 Chaffinch, 8 Goldcrest, 63 Snipe and 4 Jack Snipe. Perhaps all these extra birds could lend the ‘two bluetail theory’ some extra weight?

There'll probably be better pictures of Puffins taken on Fair Isle this year, but there'll be no others of the first one of the year!
The year list had also ticked along with the first Linnet (4th) and Crossbill (3rd) as there was a general small passage of finches.
The Linnet has been fattening up with the Twite in the Obs garden. After 2012's possible breeding attempt things fizzled out last year, but it may just be a matter of time befoer they colonise.
One of two Crossbill in the Havens (photo Mark Rayment)
Other notable sightings recently included the Kumlien’s Gull still present (5th), with at least two other Iceland Gulls during the week, Short-eared Owl, 6 Pink-footed Geese (4th-5th), Grey Heron and a slight rise in gull numbers as Common and Lesser Black-backeds start returning to their colonies.
Iceland Gulls are regularly seen around the island as birds head back north. 
Purple Sandpipers are also increasing as birds move north. These ones nearly cost me my gloves, which I put down on the rocks as I was taking the photo, forgot about, then spent about 20 minutes trying to refind before the tide came in.
With the wind now in the south there has to be a chance of more arrivals before a week of more westerly based winds perhaps slows things down a bit. There seems to be a hint of SE in the forecast again for the back end of next weekend, which will be rather nice timing if it turns out to be the case. I'll not be trying anymore predictions after my 'run of good form' was brought to a spectacular end by West Ham on Monday night (I've a horrible feeling I can predict how things are going to go for Sunderland this season now), but I don't think it's too much of a gamble to say that spring is here now (the first lambs have appeared down the island) and the birds are on their way.
The borealis type Eider (right): note the yellow bill and white 'sails' on the mantle. This drake remained off South Light until 4th at least.
Interestingly, when I approached the flock, the borealis type bird drifted away from them and headed further out, usually in the company of a female (which perhaps shows the hint of a sail on this photo, although it wasn't noticeable in the field).

Thursday, 3 April 2014

April Fool

1st-2nd April
We’d not worried about the BTO’s GPS sandals (mostly because sandals aren’t really an option for census on Fair Isle), we’d wished that the story about Davie Gardener (a friend of many on the island and an extra on ‘Shetland’) was true and the long-staying Fair Isle plastic Magpie hadn’t made an appearance in the Obs garden, so the morning of the 1st of the month had largely passed without incident. However, I decided that I’d add my own element of foolery to the month by getting to the front door with my camera, deciding at the last minute to change boots and forgetting to pick my camera up again as I did. Sure enough, within half an hour, a Great Grey Shrike appeared on a fence post about 5 metres in front of me clutching a Meadow Pipit leg in its bill and generally posing as it realised it was perfectly safe from having its image rights infringed.
The Shrike was later found in the Plantation on evening Trap Round, which still didn't quite make up for the mocking sight of my camera bag sat on the doorstep when I got back from census.
The Shrike was the highlight of a pleasant fall of thrushes and allies, with counts of 152 Robin, 60 Dunnock, 50 Blackbirds, 26 Song Thrush, 9 Redwing, 4 Mistle Thrush and a Fieldfare. Other migrants making an appearance on 1st included the first Kestrel of the year, Jackdaw, 4 Black Redstart, 3 Grey Wagtail, 4 Greenfinch, and 3 Woodcock, whilst there were also two Red-throated Divers from the Good Shepherd, an Iceland Gull (also seen on 2nd) and the first cetacean sighting of the year, when a Porpoise was seen from the top of Lerness.
Small numbers of Snow Buntings are being seen daily and adding to a reasonable mix of species passing through Fair Isle at the moment.
The 2nd saw a general decrease in most species, although Woodcock numbers rose to six (with four of these flushed from the trapping areas it would suggest there were probably more hiding out across the island), a Collared Dove and Water Rail were both  probably new arrivals and there were increases in Woodpigeon (12), Brambling (14), Chaffinch (7) and Siskin (3), with 4 Black Redstart also still present.
Several Brambling have been caught in recent days as they move north. The strong early-May passage of 2012 saw a Belgian-ringed bird from January 2011 caught at the Obs, whilst individuals ringed at the Obs at that time moved to Helgoland in four days and Norway in five days, with another found wintering in Norfolk in early 2013 (photo Ciaran Hatsell).
The main activity this morning though was a census of Tysties, with the east coast monitoring plot (the whole coast from North Light to South Light) producing a count of 196 birds in breeding plumage. This is the highest count since the 254 recorded in 1997, after which the population suddenly crashed, with a long, slow recovery taking place since then. It’s nice to get the seabird season off to a good start, although other auks seem slow to return to the cliffs (Guillemots) or even to return (Puffins). We also carried out the first Fair Isle Wren census of the season, with 23 singing males noted (although just under 40 sites have had singing birds so far this year). It’s too early to come up with a population figure, but it would seem that any worries about the winter’s weather affecting our endemic Troglodyte may be easing. As we were covering the whole coast anyway, we were also able to get a snapshot of Rock Pipits (75 were counted, with most of these probably breeding birds) and Eiders (119 were recorded). The Eider count is fairly low, although numbers often peak later in the spring, but as a direct result of the count, a male showing the mustard-coloured bill and prominent white sails of the borealis race was discovered off Skadan. Although this subspecies has been somewhat spoilt by the discovery that some ‘sailed’ birds have been raised in UK Eider colonies, this was still a smart individual.
Finally, a piece of island news and we wish to extend our hearty congratulations to everyone at Fair Isle Primary, as entry into the Royal British Legion Scotland’s schools competition has won first prize , so the entire school will be heading off for a trip to London (including spending a night on HMS Belfast) in May – well done everyone, the whole island is very proud of your fantastic effort and the great piece of work you have produced.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Coming Soon...

By Louise Batchelor, FIBOT Director

Murder and intrigue have arrived on Fair Isle – in the first television drama to be set here.  Britain’s most remote inhabited island is the location for the next two episodes of ‘Shetland’, the crime thriller series based on the books by Ann Cleeves. ‘Blue Lightning’ is on BBC1 at 9pm on 8th and 15th April. 
Filming on Fair Isle for the BBC drama 'Shetland'.
Fair Isle and its bird observatory are already on the map for notching up more ‘firsts’ for Britain, sightings of rare migratory birds, than anywhere else.  Now, thanks to Ann Cleeves, who once worked at the observatory, the island has added murder and mystery to its reputation – a reputation being spread to an even wider audience by the television adaptation.
The bird observatory, which attracts people interested in birds and islands, as well as ‘twitchers’, doesn’t seem the obvious place for violent death. In fact, there’s never been a murder on Fair Isle, as far as anyone knows.  
But in ‘Blue Lightning’ Ann Cleeves invents a dark underbelly to observatory and island life as Shetland detective Jimmy Perez returns to his native Fair Isle to visit his parents and is soon leading another murder investigation.
Ann says: “I was assistant cook in the Obs in 1975 and cook in 1976. It's a very special place because I met my husband and many of my close friends there.” So how did she turn it into a hotbed of murder and intrigue? “Well birding is about obsession, isn't it? My husband's a passionate birder and though I don't think he'd kill anyone for a new bird he does get pretty obsessed and that's fertile ground for a crime writer.”
In her book, Ann renames the observatory the ‘Fair Isle Field Centre’ and re-locates it in the island’s North Lighthouse.
The television adaptation goes even further than her, in re-inventing aspects of Fair Isle and the ‘Obs’.  Location manager Michael Higson says we might see the exterior of the modern observatory but the interior is a combination of territorial army accommodation, the headquarters of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in East Lothian, science labs outside Glasgow and a studio in the city.
One thing is certain, for many of the actors and crew, filming on Fair Isle was  the highlight of the new series. Michael says: “You do feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Then there’s the thing of the community being entirely interdependent.  I genuinely hope that the 5 million people watching it will think: that looks absolutely extraordinary.”  
Douglas Henshall, who plays DI Perez, says: “Shooting on Fair Isle was one of the best experiences we all had on the entire series. The place itself is very unique but also the people there were fantastic. They couldn’t have done enough for us.”
The production team chartered an Islander plane, the same aircraft as the ones used by the scheduled service to Fair Isle.  Even so, logistics meant they could only take around a dozen of the actors involved in the series, plus a film crew of twenty. 
Actor Bill Paterson, who plays the detective’s father, says: “To get to film in Fair Isle... I was one of the lucky ones. The flight to Fair Isle was incredible. The plane was tiny – it was really a transit van with wings on it - in fact it was flimsier than a van. It only took 20 minutes to get there but it was a beautiful flight because you’re not flying high and we had a surprisingly calm day.”
Preparing for a scene in the North Haven.
The island ferry the Good Shepherd was also filmed and skipper Neil Thomson said meeting Bill Paterson and seeing the actor at work was one of his highlights. Neil says: “It was lovely meeting Bill Paterson. He’s one of my heroes on the screen. He has very good presence. He could easily have been a Fair Isle man walking down the pier.”  
Crofter Jimmy Stout helped drive the ‘Shetland’ team around Fair Isle and was very impressed by how hard everyone worked: “There were no salmon sandwiches and white wine. More like a bottle of water and some chocolate. Very much rations and very much hard work.”
Some of the tv team stayed at the Obs and warden David Parnaby was pleased to demonstrate the work of the Observatory team, including trapping and monitoring , which may feature in the story.  David says: “I’m sure the series will capture viewers’ imaginations, even if the televised ‘field centre’ isn’t going to be much like our own observatory and the atmosphere in the bar at night here isn’t exactly murderous!  
“We’re all eagerly waiting to see which bits of the island are shown. One piece I’m sure won’t make it into the final cut will be when we were filming at North Light and my telescope was being used as a prop. Whilst watching the action, I was amazed to see an American Golden Plover circle over us and land nearby; I rushed up to get a better view of it through my ‘scope and may have caused them to have to reshoot the scene. They were very understanding though when I pointed out the bird was a rarity that may have just made its first land fall after crossing the Atlantic and at least it gave them an idea of what life at the Obs is like.”
The American Golden Plover that interrupted filming.

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