Saturday 24 December 2011

Merry Christmas!

No white Christmas this year on Fair Isle, in fact, we're forecast to be getting temperatures in double figures! Whether there is snow or not, it's still a spectacular place to be for the winter. Some of the skies have been really dramatic recently and stormy and sunny spells have battled for dominance. A particularly beautiful sunset followed the winter solstice, as if the sun was announcing that the days were getting longer and she was in charge again (although I didn't have my camera with me that evening, so I'm afraid this view from our lounge window a few days ago will have to do!).
There’s not a lot of bird news to report since my last update, some typical winter birds have included a Glaucous Gull, small numbers of Snow Buntings and a few ducks, including a Common Scoter. The goose flock seems to have dispersed, with no sightings of Bean Geese since 14th and no White-fronts since 17th, although the Greylags are still here (along with a Barnacle Goose), so I’m sure they’ll drag in one or two other species during the winter. A wander round the North of the island hoping for a Snowy Owl (or anything else from that neck of the woods!) didn’t produce much at all, although I did manage an owl when a Long-eared circled over my head at Homisdale as dusk approached. Having come from the direction of the Obs, it’s presumably still roosting unseen in the back garden.

The recent highlight has been a movement of Little Auks on 22nd. Although small numbers are seen most days if you stare out to sea, I noticed 17 in a few minutes from the kitchen window (whilst ‘taking a break’ from end of season reports and other paperwork). I thought it might be worth a proper seawatch, so asked Susannah to keep an eye out while I went and got ready (which involves putting on as many clothes as you can manage for sitting on Buness in December). In the short while it took, Susannah had counted another 197 Little Auks streaming south, so I was quite excited about what sort of total we could end up with in the last hour or so of daylight. I was a bit disappointed then, when after half an hour I’d only seen another seven! Still, a total of 221 isn’t bad.

So, with nothing more to report, I’ll end this post by wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you to all of you who have sent cards and greetings and to all of you who have read the blog during the year. Don’t forget to feed the birds, and if you’re lucky enough to be visited by Blue Tits, Great Tits or any of the other ‘common’ garden birds, make sure you appreciate them!

Merry Christmas from all the Parnabys.

Friday 16 December 2011

Just another winter's day.

 A couple of Whooper Swans are lingering on the island, although these large birds seem to struggle to find food on the island and one has already been found dead. Other wildfowl that have been found in the last couple of days that have presumably succumbed to the weather include a Long-tailed Duck, Scaup and a couple of Eiders. Keep reading though folks, it's not all doom and gloom.

Redwings and Blackbirds are still scattered around the island in reasonable numbers and a couple of Fieldfares and Song Thrush were also seen today. Three Lapwings at Barkland were presumably on the run from cold weather elsewhere. One bird that isn't fleeing the weather is the Long-eared Owl that is still in the Obs garden.

A typical mixed bag of winter weather has seen some relatively pleasant patches between cold, wintry showers, although things have been generally calm in comparison to last week’s big blows.

A common enough bird on Fair Isle, but the small gruop of Purple Sandpipers that can be seen on the grass from the kitchen window are still quite a novelty - I haven't quite got used to these sort of species being 'gadren birds' yet!
It’s been generally the time for getting on with the indoor jobs and end of year work, although there have been a few birds to enjoy. The goose numbers seem to have dwindled a bit today, with no Bean Geese at all noted (although they may well just be hiding somewhere), although there were still 25 White-fronts and a Barnacle Goose.
This smart Barnacle Goose has been lingering near Upper Stoneybrek for a few days.

The White-fronts are mostly European, although the darker bird facing right with the more triangular, orange bill is one of the Greenland subspecies.
Having seen a single Greylag head south over Buness this morning, another single went north there this afternoon (they generally aren’t found in this part of the island, so there’s a chance that birds here are actually on the move somewhere), then a skein of ten flew north out to sea on a seawatch this afternoon. Whether they were newly arrived birds from the east, heading north from elsewhere in the UK, or Fair Isle birds departing for Shetland main can only be guessed at.

Whether the suggestion of goose movement today means the Tundra Beans have actually left remains to be seen, up to 14 have been showing nicely during the week, usually in the Kennaby area. A small group of Pink-feet (below) have also been seen alongside them, providing a nice comparison and keeping goose fans happy!

Also on the seawatch, there was a Little Auk (with another in North Haven later where the Great Northern Diver was again seen), two ‘Blue’ Fulmars amongst thousands of regular ones and 60+ Guillemots.
This Little Auk gave incredible views, although it swam off strongly after a few minutes, so was presumably just having a rest rather than being ill.
 An Iceland Gull was in the North Haven briefly yesterday and there must be a chance of more white-wingers at the end of the week, as strong NW winds are forecast, maybe that dead seal in the South Haven will come up trumps yet…

Sunday 11 December 2011

Aye, it's a Taiga.

Not much birding today, with the better weather being a chance to try to patch up the traps a bit (or at least stop the flapping bits from flapping, so the predicted stormy weather at the end of the week will have to work harder to cause any more damage). A quick drive round the island after Kirk saw pretty similar numbers of geese to yesterday, although the bird below was one I'd not seen in the group before.
The size, head and neck shape, bill shape and colour all point towards this being a Taiga Bean Goose, quite a different looking beast to most of the accompanying Tundras (although not all the Bean Geese are clear cut to identify to subspecific level). Nick had seen what may have been the same bird whilst I was away, so it probably isn't a new arrival. Few other birds were noted, with the Great Northern Diver still in North Haven, with Long-tailed Ducks here and Finnequoy and a Red-breasted Merganser also at the latter site. The Obs garden held a couple of Robins, with the first Fieldfare I've seen since I returned also here.
With reasonable weather forecast for tomorrow, we'll get a chance to see if there are any surprises lurking around the island (something like that Desert Wheatear that was found in Lerwick this week would be nice!).

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

So, it looks like we survived. Damage to the Obs has been minimal and it sounds like the rest of the island has managed without anything too serious going wrong. The winds were quite severe again last night, but today has been calmer (still not exactly tropical mind) and it looks like we could get a couple of days of relatively pleasant weather. However, it is clear that the traps have suffered somewhat. Some damage is expected every winter, usually the catching boxes get rattled and wire needs replacing, but this is the worst I’ve seen it (ok, I know I’ve been here less than a year, but it is pretty bad honest!).

Those of you who know Fair Isle will know that the Vaadal stream isn't meant to look like this.

Even those of you who've never been here will know that the Vaadal trap isn't meant to look like this.
Hjon Dyke has also suffered.
Double Dyke over. The largest trap is in the most trouble, leaning at an alarming rate and both catching boxes and ramps severely damaged.
The slightly better conditions did enable me to get out for most of today to see what birds were around (although it was still windy enough to avoid most of the cliffs) and it was quite a pleasant selection. A brief seawatch from Buness produced six Little Auks, whilst the NW winds had also brought a couple of Glaucous Gulls (an adult and a first winter) to the North of the island. The mid-November falls seem to have resulted in more birds lingering into December than is sometimes the case, with two Long-eared Owls, 49 Blackbirds, 36 Redwing, 2 Robins, 3 Skylarks, Woodcock and a Carrion Crow noted.
It's good to see the LEOs have survived the worst of the weather so far and are now looking happier (well, not happier as Long-eared Owls always look rather cross, but drier at least). One was seen hunting not far from the Obs this afternoon.
With a bit more time to search out goose flocks today the counts were higher, with 16 Tundra Bean Geese, 26 White-fronted Geese (a couple were possibly Greenland birds, but the light was too poor by the time I saw them to make a definite call), nine Pink-feet and 149 Greylags, along with four Whooper Swans. The Great Northern Diver was in North Haven again (and Tommy saw a Long-tailed Duck in South Harbour), with typical winter fare including a smart male Merlin, Golden Plover and 24 Snow Buntings.
Having swapped Christmas presents with all the family down south on our recent travels, we're getting in the festive spirit. This is Grace helping to make a Christmas cake and sporting her 'I didn't realise there was someone behind me when I started eating the ingredients' look.

Friday 9 December 2011

Welcome Home!

No, not on Fair Isle - Nuthatch from the breakfast table at the in-laws was a great bird to catch up with on our mainland jaunt.
After three weeks away, we’ve returned to Fair Isle. I managed not to miss too many birds, although if I’d checked the North Haven the morning that we left I’d have added seen the 13th Great Crested Grebe for Fair Isle (the first island record since 2005)! But most people on the island have been too busy dealing with the effects of the weather to worry about what birds are around. North-west winds have lashed the island, with winds regularly getting above force 10 and lying snow causing some damage and lots of travel disruption. The Good Shepherd sailed on the day we left then not again until the day we came back, whilst the planes have been hampered by strong winds, lying snow and a frozen runway. That meant we had to take the Good Shepherd to get back to the island, although the crossing was too rough for the van to make it, so who knows when we’ll see that again! The crossing also proved too rough for mine and Susannah’s lunches to make it all the way across as well, although Grace slept through virtually the whole thing (thanks in part to Kenny’s ear defenders!). The Shepherd crew were very helpful and Deryk had put the Obs heating on, got some milk out the freezer and brought the minibus down to the harbour having heard we weren’t feeling great (he even didn't mention the Sunderland results, so we must have looked bad!). Along with the greetings and hugs we had at the harbour, it really highlighted one of our favourite things about Fair Isle, that great community spirit.

No sooner had we returned to the island than the wind picked up again, bringing some violent stormy conditions. We survived Wednesday night without too many problems (a few bits of fence have come loose, there’s some guttering in the garden etc) and the wind dropped enough to get out and about for an hour to check the birds. A good start were two Long-eared Owls in the garden, with a few Redwings, Blackbirds and Robins also lingering around the island and a Woodcock flew past the kitchen window. A Great Northern Diver in North Haven was a nice bird (still largely in breeding plumage) and down the island there were several Greylag flocks with 12 White-fronts, two Bean Geese and a couple of Whooper Swans still present.
After the worst of the weather had passed, this rather soggy Long-eared Owl emerged from the Obs garden.
It had a bit of a fly about, presumably to try to dry itself off, before returning to the garden.
At which point it became clear there were two, as a second one emerged (and sat on the mist net). There could have been more hiding in there, but we weren't about to disturb them to find out.
The brief lack of wind though was very much the eye of the storm and as we settled down for the evening, the radio crackled out*, ‘Fair Isle: cyclonic becoming northwesterly severe gale 9 to violent storm 11, occasionally hurricane force 12 at first’. And boy did it mean it, the gusts peaked on the island at 98mph overnight and down the island people were unable to sleep as their houses rattled and unidentified objects flew past the windows. Now the wind has dropped to a more manageable 60mph or so we can get out and see what the damage has been...

*note: artistic licence used here as we get our shipping forecast off the internet like most other people nowadays and even if we did listen to it, using the laptop tends to cut down on the crackle.

The avian highlight from my time off the island was this Greater Yellowlegs in Northumberland, although two Hume's Warblers on Shetland were also good birds.
My sister's wedding was also a major highlight of the trip, as was the baptism of my Godson David Cheetham.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

They go up, tiddly, up, up (tomorrow hopefully).

Another day with lots of geese (59 Bean, 63 Whitefronts and 21 Pink-feet), although I didn't have much time for birding as we were waiting to hear whether the plane would go or not.
The geese included three Beans and a White-front seen coming in off the sea at South Light, so they seem to be still arriving, although getting an exact count from the various scattered flocks around the island isn't easy. A great sight though!
In the end, the low cloud started lifting just as the light went, so no plane (still almost two weeks to my sister's wedding though, so still plenty of time for us to get off the island...). A bit of a blow, but having just taken the call to say the flight was off (and we'd be trying again at 8am tomorrow), I found two Long-eared Owls in the Vaadal, not a bad consolation! Following that, one of the Sparrowhawks that keeps just evading the traps (even Grace told me the other day that 'you keep missing the Sparrowhawk don't you Daddy') finally made it into the Gully. A few talons to avoid in that lot!
Thanks to Tommy for this pic, more of Tommy's images of this evening's birds at
Other than that, I didn't manage to see too much with Chiffchaff and Blackcap still around, Hen Harrier near Setter, Scaup, 4 Woodpigeon and 30 Lapwing, whilst Tommy saw a few bits and pieces down south, including Mealy Redpoll.
The Hen Harrier touched down briefly after performing a brief fly past as we came back from the shop (thanks to Fiona for opening in her lunch break so we could get some food having found out we weren't going to be flying out this morning!).
After the FIBOT Chairman found Hume's Warbler at Kergord and the Vice-Chairman got one in his garden at Trondra, we probably should have managed one on Fair Isle in this spell of south-easterlies, but it isn't going to be me who finds it (unless the plane doesn't go tomorrow...).

Monday 14 November 2011

Sunday Sightings.

I'll try again with a brief summary of sightings after the website crashed trying to load my last attempt. Bah. Really I should be packing as we're due to fly off in the morning after the weather improved enough for the van to leave the island today, so we'll hopefully be on our way  round the country visiting our families soon (and possibly taking in the odd good bird, football match and Indian takeaway on the way!).
The Bean Geese were mostly concentrated around wet area near the Houll crop strip today, although a few smaller groups were scattered elsewhere on the island. Today's count of 46 Beans was slightly down on yesterday's record, but still impressive. The other highlights of today included the Rough-legged Buzzard still present in the North where there was also a Common Buzzard, continuing a quite good year for raptors (especially with Merlin, Peregrine and at least three Sparrowhawks on the island today as well - not quite Falsterbo admittedly, but a nice selection).

There seemed to be more movement amongst the goose flocks today, so the day totals were perhaps slight underestimates as we tended to err on the side of caution. There was still a  slight increase in White-fronts though, with 74 logged, whilst Greylag and Pink-feet numbers remained similar to yesterday.

Several small groups of Lapwings have arrived in recent days, whilst other new birds today included adult Little Gull in South Harbour, Mistle Thrush at Quoy and Black Redstart and Chiffchaff (only seen briefly, but a pale looking bird) at the Obs.

If I see anything really good in the UK I'll maybe let you know, but otherwise this will probably be my last blog post for a little while. We'll be returning to the Obs on 7th December (weather permitting as always!), so in the meantime please don't think we're ignoring any messages, we'll get back to you as soon as possible when we return!

Sunday 13 November 2011

Beans Means Geese.

After hefty SE winds overnight, the morning gradually became calmer, the sun shone and there were still clearly loads of birds about, with Blackbirds the most numerous. What a great day to be on Fair Isle! Early signs were that one or two common migrants (Chiffchaff, Reed Bunting etc) were new in but there wasn’t anything to worry the Birdline hotline with.
It's been a good autumn for Short-eared Owls, with several birds still lingering on the island (although some of today's birds may well have been new arrivals).
Things started picking up when four Short-eared Owls showed well at Pund, what I assumed to be yesterday’s Bean Goose flew over and one of the Olive-backed Pipits reappeared in the Gillie Burn.
The OBP coming rather close shortly before my camera battery went flat. Sadly, I was carrying the wrong spare (as it was also flat). Still, what a bird to be enjoying in the sunshine in mid-November!
As my camera battery had run out, I decided to jump in the Obs people carrier (which was dropping Grace off at North Shirva where she had a great time baking cakes, playing the piano and watching Lion King!) to get my spare and set off to check North. We decided to take the long way round the loop back to the Obs to check out some Scaup Tommy had found in South Harbour (in the end, eight were seen around the south of the island) but were halted in our tracks by the goose flock at Houll. Although we’d been told there were two Tundra Bean Geese heading towards us from Sumburgh, we weren’t expected at least a dozen to be hiding amongst the long grass and pools, especially when the supporting cast appeared to be mostly White-fronts.
Bean Geese and lots of 'em! Sorry about the colours on these pictures, I'd managed to get my camera on the wrong setting and I'm very much a photoshop novice.
Lots of White-fronts as well, beautiful birds.
A quick change of plans then saw me spend the afternoon literally on a wild goose chase checking all the likely spots around the island that could hold flocks. In the end, flocks at Lower Stonybrek, Houll and Kennaby saw an unbelievable total of 59 Bean Geese and 63 White-fronts (along with 20 Pinks and 64 Greylags)! Not only are both of these record counts for Fair Isle, but they may well both be records for Shetland. In the case of Bean Goose the previous Fair Isle record count is 16, so that’s been well and truly smashed. I’m hoping that the Shetland Records Committee will be a bit lenient and I’ll not have to write 59 individual descriptions!
Part of the goose flock at Kennaby.
As if that wasn’t enough, whilst checking the North of the island for any more lurking geese a Rough-legged Buzzard appeared near the mast and gave great views! It’s not a common bird on Fair Isle, so this was a great way to round off the day (although the Great Grey Shrike going into roost in the plantation turned out to be a nice extra bonus!).
What a fantastic bird! Having missed the Rough-leg in Mainland Shetland when bringing our furniture up to Fair Isle in February, this was an even more welcome sight!
More reasonable weather forecast for tomorrow, maybe more birds?

Saturday 12 November 2011

Bean there...

The winds continued to blow from the south-east and the birds are still here, with new ones still coming in. Tommy called this afternoon to say a Great Grey Shrike had just left his garden at Haa carrying a freshly-caught bird (Chaffinch or Brambling he thought), on my way down to look for it I found it had come up the island and was perched on the Plantation trap briefly, before it pelted off down the island again. It’s been a good year for this dramatic butcher bird on Fair Isle with one in the spring and at least four in the autumn.
Sadly the shrike remained on the wrong side of the wire for trapping and photography!
The other highlight was an addition to the year list, with a Bean Goose amongst the Greylags at Lower Stoneybrek (which very shortly after being found left the flock and headed off across the island).
Smaller than accompanying Greylags, with a rounded head and slightly bulging lower mandible, field views suggested 'Tundra' Bean Goose, although the photos give the impression of a long-billed bird.

 No sign of the OBPs today and not many other headline species to report, although the birding remains good, albeit slightly more challenging today in a stronger, more blustery (and colder) wind.

Only single figures of Jackdaws remain after last months large influx.
The weather has also affected our travel plans as Susannah, Grace and I were meant to be leaving the island today to get to my sister’s wedding in Sunderland, but it will now be Monday at the earliest before we can get off. Thankfully, we’ve given ourselves plenty of slack in the itinerary so we should still get there without any bother. In the meantime, there are worse places to be stuck in SE winds with a continued arrival of birds than Fair Isle and anything I see over the weekend can be considered a bonus!

Friday 11 November 2011

The Never-ending Autumn!

Normally by 10th November it would be last chance saloon for migration, but the continued south-easterly winds are still bringing in more birds. The island suddenly seems rather large with just me left in the Obs (well, Susannah and Grace are here as well obviously but Susannah is busy with the somewhat less glamorous aspects of running the Obs, namely accounts, advertising etc and Grace is busy with watching Peppa Pig so neither of them get to do much birding) and there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover the whole island. Picking and choosing which bits to get to inevitably causes anxiety about what might be getting missed, summed up today by my decision to abandon the west cliffs, which seemed rather quiet, and head inland. Shortly before I did, an Olive-backed Pipit flew up from the cliff top at Hjukni and landed in the grass not far ahead of me (if I’d turned inland ten yards sooner I’d have missed it, so much for the cliffs being quiet!). After getting some lovely views I decided to follow the Gillie Burn back towards the crofts when, about 200 yards later, I flushed an OBP from the grass ahead of me. Sure enough, after getting some great views of this one as well (it was so distracting in fact that I was almost eaten by a pony) I headed back to where I’d left the first bird and it was still there – two OBPs! Multiple records of this smart pipit are not unprecedented on Fair Isle, but it was still a pretty special experience.
The first bird, feeding along the burn near the waterfall into Hjukni Geo.

Bird Two. Whether either of these birds are the individual seen by Double Dyke three days ago is a matter of speculation, but both could be new, given the number of migrants that have come in during the intervening period.
Other migrants again consisted largely of Blackbirds (with several hundred still around), Fieldfares, and Redwings with smaller numbers of Woodcock. Two Long-eared Owls were in Hesti Geo, a Ring Ouzel was in the Gully, a Stonechat was briefly in the Gillie Burn and a few more Chaffinch seemed to have arrived as well. A few wildfowl included a couple of Goldeneye and 11 Pink-feet whilst the Scaup that spent time on the tiny pond in the Haa has now moved to Utra Scrape.
More birds tomorrow? I wouldn’t bet against it…

A couple of Goldfinch arrived in the North nearly a fortnight ago and may be the birds seen at Leogh today. They are a scarce visitor to Fair Isle, so you really appreciate the splash of colour they bring when they drop in.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream.

We’re currently being lashed by SE winds and drizzly conditions that have stopped the Good Shepherd sailing and the planes flying but haven’t stopped a whole variety of birds arriving. The highlight from recent days has been an Olive-backed Pipit on Monday showing nicely near (but sadly not in) the Double Dyke trap before moving to Gilsetter. Another interesting sighting was a Swift at Lericum later that day. Initial views of a relatively slowly flying, pale bird with contrasting wings were certainly enough to get the blood pumping a bit, but looking at the features noted in the field and from photos, it seems that Common Swift is the most likely option. An interesting bird none the less and comfortably the latest record for the island of the species (by about 12 days), I’m happy to receive (either as comments to the blog or as emails to me) any thoughts about it that you may have based on the photos below.

Seen whizzing around the cliffs just west of North Light, the swift eventually headed off west after being chased out to sea by a Merlin. Although never looking very blunt-winged, there were certainly times the wings didn't look very pointed either. Generally the flight wasn't fast (nor was it sluggish) and it seemed 'big-winged' at times. The whole issue of late autumn swift ID is an interesting one, with some identification features of Pallid and Common appearing less reliable than was previoulsy thought.
Although the dark eye stands out from the head, there doesn't appear to be an eye patch. The forehead had only very limited white (very dificult to see in the field), although there seems to be some discussion as to how reliable this is as an identification feature.
In the field the outer primaries were the darkest part of the wing and pale fringing was visible on the upper wing coverts.
The body pluamge was certainly paler than a typical adult Common Swift, but this would be expected in a juvenile (a plumage which is not especially familiar to most British observers). Pale scaling could not be seen on the upperparts (although I woudln't like to say for certain it wasn't there on the views I had) and the underparts were mostly not seen as the bird flew below the cliff top.
In this image the plumage looks darker than in the field and shadowing has created a darker upper-mantle effect than was actually the case. All of the above images have been cropped but otherwise are unaltered.
Today has also been a good day, although there have been no outstanding rarity highlights a good number of commoner birds has made the island an enjoyable place to be. Two Long-eared Owls, 5 Short-eared Owls, Chiffchaff, a few Blackcaps, over 50 Woodcock and 400+ Blackbirds in the North of the island alone show the scale of movement taking place. It’s quite hard to go more than a few yards without a bird taking off from under your feet – real good fun, quality birding.
That's one less Skylark for the Log - a Merlin also enjoys the migrants.
The last of the seasonal staff left on Monday, so once again a big thank you to all of the people who have worked and volunteered for us this year that have helped to make our first season such an enjoyable one. With all the staff now gone, it has left us a bit short of people to actually look for birds, but with Deryk, Tommy and various other folk down the island getting out and about I hope we won’t miss too much. With birds still turning up on the east coast of Britain and the south-easterlies set to continue for a few more days, there’s still a chance of another bird or two as well (and then after that I’ll get down to the office work!).

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