Wednesday 21 November 2012

And we're off...

21st November
Just a quick one today as we’re off on holiday to visit the family and, due to tomorrow’s poor forecast, we’re trying to get out a day early - so lots of last minute panicking to get everything ready before we go. One thing that I can’t get working is the email ‘Out of Office’, so please note that we’ll be away until 17th December at least – and please pass the message on to anyone who’s trying to get in touch with us. We’ll reply to your messages as soon as possible when we return (which will be weather dependant of course…).

Being never more than a few hundred yards from the sea, all of Fair Isle is pretty much coastal habitat, so Turnstones in gardens, Fulmars in fields, Gannets over the island etc are all fairly normal. It still seemed odd seeing a Purple Sandpiper feeding on the waterfall in the Gully though!
Bird wise it’s been pretty much much of a muchness this week, with several days of strong southerly winds and a fair bit rain - Monday didn’t seem to get light at all as we stayed under thick cloud all day! With the wind getting a bit of SE in it yesterday there were a handful more thrushes, a couple extra Robins and a few Woodock (one of which ended its days in spectacular fashion over Glisetter this morning when it became a Peregrine’s breakfast). A Moorhen in the Gully today was definitely a migrant (and perhaps a sign that it isn’t a good day to be leaving the island…!), but otherwise there have been very few new birds in, with the only sign of movement in the traps being a Blackcap on 16th.
Greylags have been arriving in the last couple of days, with around 270 yesterday including several skeins that headed straight through the island and a Pink-footed Goose has joined the flock at Shirva. Half a dozen Wigeon were the only other sign of new wildfowl though.
The Great Tit has found the bird feeders on the island, so is presumably set to attempt to overwinter (for the sake of the 2013 year list, let’s hope it makes it until January 1st at least!), whilst more typical winter treats included at least 23 Snow Buntings, a juvenile Glaucous Gull (20th) and a couple of ‘blue’ Fulmars.
Right, best go do the packing: binoculars, wallet, two kids, that should do…
Bye for now.

Friday 16 November 2012


15th November
OK, so I’d said it would be a while until the next update, but when I got a text from Assistant Warden Will yesterday saying he’d just caught Waxwing NW62620 in Aberdeen, I thought it was worth posting an update here. Our very own Waxwing Queen Becki Rosser caught him (he’s a young male) in the Obs mistnets on 4th November and eleven days later he’d made it to my recent home town. With a fat score of zero (and weight of 52.7g) when he was trapped on Fair Isle, it’s good to know that he was able to feed up and make the long sea crossing to the Granite City. He’s now colour-ringed as well, so there’s every chance of getting more sightings of him across the country. The Grampian Ringing Group are probably the UK’s top Waxwing catchers, so hopefully we’ll find out that a few more of our birds have been relocated.
On the day we got news of a travelling Waxwing, it seems fitting that we got the first Waxwing at the Obs for several days when this adult called into the garden briefly.
Back on the island, it’s mostly a mix of lingering birds (Hen Harrier, Great Tit, Rook, Water Rail), typical winter visitors (Iceland Gull on 13th, Goldeneye, a couple of Blue Fulmar) and a last little trickle of migrants with the 13th/14th seeing a bit of south-easterly wind that produced an increase in Blackbirds, Woodcock (a max count of 8), Long-eared Owl (Schoolton on 14th), Crossbill (a male on 14th) and Goldfinch 13th, with a Sparrowhawk following them on 15th.
The Rook was actually an addition to Susannah's kitchen window year list!
Aside from the birds, we're more or less sorted now for our holiday and we should last the week until we go off, as the Good Shepherd made it home on Wednesday and now the island is awash (not literally) with milk, diesel and bread. What looks like a few more days of strong SW winds and rain coming up should help us get all the office jobs done before we leave, but hopefully there'll still be one or two more birds to see before then.

Monday 12 November 2012

12th November

All pretty quiet out here at the moment, with today's strengthening SE wind not producing much in the way of new birds, although there was an increase in Greylags (to 120) and 2 Red-breasted Mergansers appeared in the North Haven. A few lingerers included 3 Waxwing, Great Tit, Lesser and Mealy Redpoll, Rook, Chiffchaff, 3 Chaffinch and the Hen Harrier was seen again yesterday. Also yesterday, we did get a large, confiding green and yellow finch from the northern forests, but it was not the wished for Grosbeak but a female Crossbill instead. If you want to be extraordinarily optimistic, you could argue that it's probably come from the same place as Pine Grosbeak, so there's still the chance that one of their larger cousins makes it across the North Sea.
The traps are pretty quiet now, with not much more than a scattering of Blackbirds, Redwing and the occasional Woodcock caught recently. Most of the Redwings have been the larger, darker coburni race. Although the bird in this image was in the overlap zone for measurements, it was with other coburni and had the dark plumage that suggested it too had come from Iceland.
With few birds to talk about, there's more time to ponder other things; like how we'll keep Grace entertained on our forthcoming travels around the country as we catch up with the family (and possibly a few Sunderland matches, maybe the odd good bird as well...) and why gluten-free bread really doesn't work for dipping in gravy. We've not had a boat for around three weeks now so supplies of some foods are running low (hence raiding the freezer for the last remaining bread stocks), fuel is getting a bit scarce on the island and we could really do with the bins being emptied soon as well!
Grace and Freyja say 'hello' to everyone who visited this year and who reads the blog! I've discovered that no matter how tightly I crop pictures of my family, there always seems to be a rogue sock or some such in the background.
We'll be heading off the island for our holidays at the back end of next week, so don't worry if you can't get hold of us for a while after that. In the meantime if you're wanting to book for 2013, it's probably worth getting in touch sooner rather than later (the peak late September/eaerly October period is already fully booked, but we've still got availability in our late October discounted period if you fancy being here for the magical 23rd!).
This might be my last update for a wee while, as the dwindling number of new birds doesn't look like being reversed by the strong SW winds forecast, although you just never know...

Saturday 10 November 2012

Unlucky Duck.

A rather quiet spell saw one inauspicious addition to the year list, with a Velvet Scoter found freshly dead on the North Haven beach (10th), a bird that is still missing from my Fair Isle list (although I swear this one was still warm when I found it!).
Otherwise things had a distinctly wintry theme, although a few lingering highlights included two Great Tits, 25 Waxwing, Hen Harrier (9th), Blue Fulmar (still on the cliffs at Ditfield) and Lesser Redpoll (8th).
Although Great Tit counts have never exceded two this autumn, at least three birds have been involved. This male at the School having apparently replaced one of the original two females at some stage.
Other birds that remain from the autumn include a Chiffchaff at the Obs, where there were also 3 Blackcap until 8th (with one found predated by a raptor on 10th), 2 Rook, Common Redpoll and at least four Water Rail (with the latter at least possibly contemplating overwintering).
A rather pale redpoll at the School looked rather interesting when I first saw it briefly whilst dropping Grace at nursery. When it was eventually tracked down it turned out to be Common Redpoll, probably a pale 'Mealy'.
There were few new birds, although 5 Linnet at the School (8th) was the highest count for some time and a Sparrowhawk (9th) was the first this month. The latter bird was trapped and found to have a very full crop, with a suspicious pile of Waxwing feathers nearby perhaps indicating it has a taste for apple-flavoured birds. Also new was a first-winter Glaucous Gull (7th), with the following day seeing 3(two juvs and an adult) in Finnequoy.
Perhaps the north-westerlies tomorrow might bring us one last surprise from over the Atlantic, or maybe one of those Pine Grosbeaks will eventually cross the North Sea, but it is starting to feel like that’s just about it for the year.
Water Rail is often a garden bird on Fair Isle in the winter, although the minimum of four currently present is a good count. This one has taken up reisdence at the Obs, where it occasionally shows very well from the office window (and provides a welcome distraction from the paperwork!).

Wednesday 7 November 2012

On the Waxwings of Love.

30th October - 6th November
And so, the end of the season has come upon us. The last of the Obs guests departed on 31st October, the majority of the staff have headed off for their winter retreats and there’s time to reflect upon the season. That said, reflecting on the season has had to wait whilst we carry on birding – the season may be over for guests, but for migrants there’s a week or two of potential excitement left yet (early November last year brought Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 3 Olive-backed Pipits, Rough-legged Buzzard and a Bean Goose influx).
The autumn is starting to feel a bit quieter now, but against a decline in the number and variety of migrants there has been an impressive arrival of Waxwings. Over 30 were seen in late October, with the first week in November seeing more arriving. The dynamics of these birds around the island has been interesting – a flock of around 35 at the Obs for example regularly dropped into the mistnets in the garden and by the end of the day, around 50 birds had been caught! Eight trapped later that day at Shirva included 2 unringed birds, one ringed the previous day and 5 that had been ringed that day at the Obs. Making an accurate count of birds as they move around and flocks disperse and reform is obviously tricky, but at least 100 were on the island on Sunday. Numbers seem to be declining now, but with over 100 ringed during the last week here, we hopefully haven’t heard the end of them.
It's nice to see Waxwings looking a bit more 'natural' than most of my previous encounters with the species. Although they do look a bit lost sat around in the heather.

Several of the gardens on Fair Isle have been putting out fruit for them - and some trapped birds have put on weight whilst they've been here, so it seems to be working.

Most of the trapped birds have been immatures. This adult male can be aged by the yellow on the primaries curving right round the feather tips (compare it with the first-winter bird above).

Beautiful birds, they really are close to being perfect.
The tips to the secondaries that gives the Waxwing its name.
Amongst our old friends, the Siberian Rubythroat lingered until 3rd (it was last seen heading further off its usual circuit to Utra, so there’s still a slim chance it could be hiding somewhere), the Woodlark was still around on 4th at least and the two Great Tits look like they might be set to try wintering on the island.
New visitors included a Coue’s Arctic Redpoll briefly at Stackhoull (2nd), a Yellow-browed Warbler (3rd) and a Bluethroat (30th – 31st). At least 2 tristis Chiffchaff have been seen during the week, a Lesser Whitethroat (30th) was of one of the eastern races and a Tree Sparrow at the Obs (4th), 7 Crossbill (31st) and a Goldfinch at Utra (5th) were new. Both Long-eared and Short-eared Owls put in appearances in what has been a poor autumn for both species and Merlin and Peregrine were joined by a Hen Harrier from 30th (with a second on 3rd).
This young male Bluethroat was a surprise catch on 30th October. Trapped at the same time (although in a different part of the island) to a Siberian Chiffchaff and a Lesser Whitethroat apparently of one of the 'eastern' races, it perhaps begs the question as to where this one has come from and what race it may be... . (photo by Kat Snell)
In a good year for tristis Chiffchaffs, this one was caught at the Chalet. As well as appearing a classic individual on plumage, it gave the diagnostic call whilst in the hand. (photo by Will Miles)

This Hen Harrier was one of two that made a low pass over the Obs together on Saturday. It's ringed on the left leg (as was a bird at North Ron the day before, which turned out to be wearing a BTO ring), which may suggest it is an Orkney bird.
Wintry birds included an adult Iceland Gull (31st) with a first-winter from 1st, up to 9 Long-tailed Ducks, at least two Water Rails in gardens in the south that may well attempt to winter again and Little Auks were seen on 30th and 3rd, with a dead bird found in a field at Taft (5th).
A juvenile Iceland Gull (joined here by a Kittiwake) in South Haven, as viewed from the Obs.
A 'blue' Fulmar has been in residence on the cliffs at Dutfield since October, whilst up to four have been seen in the bay when concentations of Fulmars gather there.
What next? Well paperwork and bits of work round the Obs need to be done at some point, Susannah and I are having to learn to cook for ourselves and there's a bit more time for socialising around the island (we had an excellent night on Tuesday at the Hall being entertained by the Danish band Himmerland after a fireworks party at South Light on Monday) but with the Pine Grosbeak invasion into Scandinavia now appearing to be the largest in recent times who knows if there could be a last twist in this fantastic year's tale...

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