Saturday 27 July 2013

Postcard from Sunderland

27th July
After a trip down south for personal reasons was cancelled last week (I couldn't get off the island in time due to the fog), I decided to take Grace down to Sunderland to catch up with my parents and my sister (who was due her first child three days ago) this week instead. After all, although autumn migration can get going from very early in August, I'd not miss anything in the last week of July would I? I was mightily pleased when we heard the Swinhoe's Petrel shortly before I went away (as I might have missed it if I'd stuck to the original plan) and when it didn't reappear the night before I left, (despite a catch of 60+ Stormies) I was hopeful I'd get away without missing anything. A Pectoral Sandpiper on Monday was also nice to catch up with and made me hopeful that I'd jammed in on late July's best birds (although I did confess that I thought a Two-barred Crossbill was probably on the cards)...
Things seemed to be going to plan, as the first few days reports from Fair Isle were all related to the bad weather (fog, rain, wind) whilst Grace and I enjoyed sunshine, ice creams and catching up with my family.
Then the text 'Orca!' from Susannah, followed by superb pictures of three animals that lingered round the island. Ah well, a bit gutting to miss that, but we've been very lucky for sightings this year already, so it's not the end of the world. Next came the news on Friday that Two-barred Crossbill had indeed made it to Fair Isle, not one though, but a flock of 8 (eight) on Hoini! OK, so that's a bit galling to miss, but hopefully they'll stick around, or we may even get more by the time I return. An Icterine Warbler the same day at Schoolton was a bit concerning - surely autumn migration can't have started already, this wasn't the plan. Best not panic though, that's probably a one-off isn't it? Either way, there was not much I could do about it, so I enjoyed dinner in the garden at my parents', with my first ever Comma butterfly in County Durham (they've spread north since I moved away from the area and I very rarely make it back in the summer) and even a display from the Red Arrows as the Sunderland Air Show kicked off just to the north of us.
After going to bed, I was vaguely aware of a text message coming in during the small hours. In my bleary eyed state, I thought I read something about 'Swinhoe's', but almost went back to sleep, assuming it was an old message from our previous encounter. But hang on, look at the date and the time; that's just come in from Will, and it says they've caught the Swinhoe's! I'll confess that my first reaction was 'why am I not out catching Stormies tonight?' and to throw on my clothes, before the sickening realisation as I opened the door that this wasn't my bedroom on Fair Isle and there was no way I was getting to see the bird tonight!
I did see the pictures Susannah posted on Facebook but that's the closest I got. Still, I'm very pleased for the team and I hope they're enjoying themselves now. Although a sixth record for Britain is not as rare as some of Fair Isle's previous visitors, this has to rank up there as one of the outstanding records for the island.
Swinhoe's Petrel by Noa Eden. Crikey!
I'll put more details up when I return (if I can face it!), but in the meantime, I suggest any petrel enthusiasts who haven't already done so, get themselves a copy of Petrels Night and Day (which is where the recording came from that we use for trapping sessions, we can't send it to out I'm afraid as it's copyrighted material, but the book is well worth getting anyway!), get the nets up and the tapes running and start trying to find out if there are any more out there (the limited number of records in Britain and elsewhere in Europe do seem to suggest there are perhaps mini-surges of the species into the North Atlantic, possibly coinciding with especially hot summers...). Good luck!
Bird of the year? It'll certainly take some beating, even on Fair Isle (picture by Noa Eden).

Go on then, one more. This one by Will Miles. The last of the texts from the FIBO team came through at 5am, I imagine there was some celebrating going on last night (and probably a late start this morning; with thick fog returning to the island there's no rush to be out - the continued sunshine in Sunderland is no real consolation!).

Monday 22 July 2013

Petrel Prizes

The summer means many things to many people; here at FIBO our thoughts don’t turn to barbeques, beaches or cricket but to Storm Petrels (amongst other things admittedly). Saturday night provided our best catch of the season so far, with around 25 Storm Petrels and 2 Leach’s Petrels trapped, so Sunday night was keenly anticipated.

Sure enough, things ticked along nicely, with around 40 Stormies trapped and, impressively, another two Leach’s Petrels (we’d normally only expect four or five or so of these larger Petrels during the summer, so we’ve certainly started well this year).
Things were getting a bit quieter by around 2.40am, until Will wandered out of the ringing hut with Billy (our current JHMF volunteer) and started yelling ‘THERE’S A SWINHOE’S CALLING!’ Noa and I ran to the far end of the net where Will was and, sure enough, chattering away just offshore was the distinctive call of Swinhoe’s Petrel (prior to that, the speakers had been between the bird and us, pumping out the calls of various petrel species). At this stage, Richard had seen the gathering (but not heard the shouts as he’d been too close to the other speakers!) and started heading towards us from the other net when he also recognised the call as Swinhoe’s. Although the call was heard several times, apparently from the same place (possibly on a small shelf of exposed, flat rocks a few metres offshore from the net site on South Haven), the bird was not seen. At one point, it was answering back directly to the call of Swinhoe’s Petrel coming from the speakers! I ran to the Obs to get sound recording equipment, but by the time I returned, the bird had flown and was not heard again or seen.
Well done to Will for having the optimism to persist with playing Swinhoe’s calls during the Stormie sessions for the last three years, although he’s as amazed as the rest of us that it has worked! Congratulations also to former Assistant Warden Jason Moss, who used his inside knowledge to predict it as a first for Fair Isle in the Prediction Competition and earn himself eight points to move to joint first place!

We’ll be trying again tonight, and there is some hope for a repeat performance (the last of the famous Tynemouth Swinhoe’s Petrels was caught on several occasions during its last two years visiting the site). Although everyone agreed it would be great to get the bird in the hand, there was no real disappointment it hadn’t flown into the nets, as the six of us present were more than happy to have been involved in such a remarkable record.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Blog agog at fog slog

21st July
We're all looking forward to 2pm when we can enjoy some mist for a change!
If one word has dominated our thoughts and actions in the last week, it has been fog. An unusually persistent spell of Atlantic fog saw no flights make it on or off the island for five days before a slight shift in the weather brought some glorious sunshine on Friday and things returned to normal. Unfortunately, the same shift in the weather brought North Sea fog with it from Saturday which is still lingering offshore (although I can at least see Buness from the office this morning).

In a generally quiet time of the year anyway, the inability for birds to see the island for large chunks of the last week has not helped with arrivals and most of the birds of note have been lingering individuals.
The Common Rosefinch remained until 17th, the Subalpine Warbler popped up again at Schoolton (19th) and other species that have decided to spend the summer included Reed Warbler, 2 Chiffchaff, Blackbird, Robin, Tree Sparrow, Collared Dove, Swallow and House Martin (with a fine nest of the latter being built on the cliffs of Meoness). A few random wanderers included a couple of Swift, Short-eared Owl (15th), Carrion Crow and Sand Martin (both 17th) and up to four Crossbill (all 'Common' so far, but with Two-barreds on the move in Scandinavia [and East Anglia yesterday!] there's got to be a chance of our next good bird being that species). A juvenile Grey Heron that arrived earlier in the month was heavily oiled by Fulmars, but still seems to be struggling on. The reason for its oiling became apparent this week when it was seen to predate a Fulmar chick from the cliffs of Landberg (either that or it was seeking revenge).
Small numbers of waders continue to pass through, with the highlight being two Grey Phalaropes seen from the Good Shepherd (11th). The first Black-tailed Godwit of the autumn was at Field (18th) and a Knot on the same date was joined by a second on 19th.
Wandering seabirds included Great Northern Diver (15th), Red-throated Divers on 16th and 17th and a Porpoise (17th – admittedly, not really a seabird, but it passed by on an otherwise uneventful seawatch from Buness, so it counts as an honorary one). Storm Petrel catching was also affected by the weather, with strong breezes making conditions unsuitable on several nights, but the nights that have been ‘trappable’ have seen some reasonable amounts coming into the nets. Last night proved the best so far of the season with around 25 Storm Petrels and our first two Leach’s Petrels of the season to be caught – very nice.
In a very poor year for the breeding seabirds it’s become apparent that the season is now over for Guillemots, Arctic Terns, Arctic Skuas and Kittiwakes (all apparently without success). Bonxies seem to be doing OK, with the first fledged youngster seen on 18th. Shags and Razorbills may have a chance of fledging a few chicks yet and Fulmars and Gannets are still plugging away. Puffins again seem to be proving more resilient than the other auks, so we’re hoping that our next visit to Greenholm will produce a few chicks that are ready to fledge. We’ll keep you posted…
With not many bird photos taken in the fog, here's one that Grace took on Friday at the base of Malcolm's Head.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Spring Summary

Well, it looks like we’re going to merge straight from spring to autumn, so if I’m going to give you a summary of the spring so far, I may as well do it now.

So where to start in what has been a busy spring once it got going? The rarest bird of the spring (in Fair Isle terms at least) was the Roller on 11th June, although it was only seen briefly by Nick Riddford at North Light and avoided the twitching ‘masses’ (and hopefully the Bonxie that was seen chasing it over the cliffs!). That was a second for the island, with the next rarest bird, the Roseate Tern on 6th July, a third for the island. Both birds were unexpected, with neither featuring in the Prediction Competition!
The next rarest was a real mega until recent years, although a run of recent sightings (including the second and third for the island in 2011) has made it less the stuff of dreams than it was. Still, the brief evening visit of a Pallid Harrier (3rd June) was a real highlight of the spring. A reasonable spring for raptors also saw singles of Honey Buzzard (28th May), Hobby (29th May) and Marsh Harrier (26th March), and very high totals of Hen Harriers (probably seven individuals) and Osprey (with sightings on 9 dates involving at least 7 birds). The Pallid Harrier was the pinnacle of a good day’s birding which also saw Rustic Bunting, Subalpine Warbler and Quail found.
From top left clockwise: Pallid Harrier, Osprey, Marsh Harrier and Hen Harrier. Fair Isle may not be renowned for its raptor passage, but we pick up our fair share of them.
The Rustic Bunting was the second of the spring (following another one day male on 19th May). Subalpine Warblers also had a very good spring with five sightings; male ‘westerns’ on 3rd-14th June, 17th - 27th June and a very late bird on 5th – 10th July (at least), a probable female ‘eastern’ on 25th May and an unraced female on 26th June.
Subalpine Warblers (clockwise from top left): the second male, 'eastern' female, western male and unraced female. With five birds, its been an excellent spring for this species.
A good array of rare warblers included River Warbler (5th-6th June), Paddyfield Warbler (16th June), Blyth’s Reed Warbler (27th May – 2nd June) and Melodious Warbler (15th-16th May). Amongst the scarcities, there were five Icterine Warblers in May (including the earliest ever on 5th May) and another two during 13th-16th June, whilst Marsh Warbler also saw its earliest ever Fair Isle record (18th May), with regular sightings from 26th May throughout June totalling at least 14 birds (a typical late migrant, there were five, including three new arrivals, present on 26th June, with at least three lingering into July). In contrast there were only five Reed Warblers seen all spring. The general trend for the commoner migrants was of low numbers until mid-May, after which things improved, with a few days producing arrivals of reasonable numbers.
Top row: Melodious Warbler, Marsh Warbler and Icterine Warbler. Middle row: Paddyfield Warbler, River Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler. Bottom row: Ortolan and Rustic Buntings.
The bird of the spring for many was a female Collared Flycatcher at the Mast (9th June – another excellent early June rarity in this rather late spring), whilst the set of BB rares for the spring was completed by no less than three Thrush Nightingales (8th-10th May and two found within a few hundred metres of each other on 29th May).
Collared Flycatcher and Thrush Nightingale, both BB rarities that have an affinity with Fair Isle, the latter has now occured 60 times here.
Amongst the scarce migrants, Red-backed Shrike stood out has having had an especially good year. Apart from one blank day, there were daily sightings from 9th May-3rd June, peaking at seven on 25th May and involving at least 14 birds. There were then scattered records until 18th June, then singles on 24th-25th June and 2nd July took the spring total to around 20 birds. Bluethroats also fared well, with sightings of up to three virtually daily from 16th-29th May, with a total of around 11 individuals involved. There were single Red-breasted Flycatchers on 12th-18th May and 2nd June and Ortolans on 12th-19th May, 10th & 14th June (the latter two sightings probably referring to the same bird), both species are less than annual in the spring. It was also a good spring for Grey-headed Wagtails; regular sightings from 16th May peaked at five birds.
Spring birding is even more enjoyable thanks to the colourful plumage of many of the migrants like (clockwise from top left): Red-backed Shrike, Bluethroat and Grey-headed Wagtail, although the Red-breasted Flycatchers were both female types.
By contrast, it was relatively quiet for Common Rosefinch, with a red male on 29th May, an immature male on 19th-21st June and another ‘brown’ bird on 6th-12th July (another very late migrant in which several species saw unusually late records). It was also a below par spring for Wryneck (sightings from 11th-19th May possibly involving just a couple of birds) and Hawfinch (singles on 10th and 15th-16th May), whilst the only Corncrake was singing on 24th-25th May.
Amongst some of the other migrants a couple of Fair Isle scarcities put in appearances, with Great Spotted Woodpecker (25th-29th April), Great Tit (the wintering bird remaining until 1st April then at least two during 14th-26th April) and Stock Dove (16th-20th April and two on 26th May).
Wryneck, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Great Tit - only the first of these three is annual on Fair Isle.
Other species worthy of note included Swift, with the earliest ever Fair Isle record on 16th April (in an otherwise very quiet spring for them), at least three Cuckoos (following just a single in 2012), perhaps seven different Long-eared Owls (including one on 29th June) and a reasonable spring presence of Waxwings (at least eight individuals, with the last lingering until 23rd May). The latter species was one of several that remained later than normal, with an unusual late passage of Snow Buntings (up to 47 in late May and the last on 9th June), Redwing (with one singing until 10th June), whilst a Ring Ouzel, two Tree Sparrow, three House Martin, Marsh Warbler and Reed Warbler all seem set to summer on the island.
Waxwing, Cuckoo and Snow Bunting all had good springs.
Wader highlights were the first Temminck’s Stint since 1987, Pectoral Sandpiper (6th May), a Red-necked Phalarope (23rd May), Dotterel (12th May) and our earliest ever Whimbrel (9th April)
Top: Temminck's Stint. Bottom: Pectoral Sandpiper, Dotterel and Whimbrel. Although waders don't occur in large numbers, we tend to get a good selection during the year.
Ring-billed Gull (9th-21st January) led the highlights amongst the seabirds, as well as being the best bird of the winter. There were also at least eight Iceland Gulls during the first half of the year (with the latest on 2nd-4th June), five Glaucous Gulls and two Pomarine Skuas (15th May and 4th July, both from the Good Shepherd), two Little Auks 9th January and 26th April) and a Sandwich Tern (13th June).
Ring-billed Gull (left), Glaucous and Iceland Gulls were all highlights during the winter, although birding then is generally quiet with usually only around 50 species seen a month.
So, not a bad spring all in all! If I’d put in all the common migrant numbers etc as well I’d have been half way to writing an annual report (although it’s probably worth mentioning the three Killer Whale sightings and pod of 100+ White-sided Dolphins), but it’s been nice to reflect on some of the highlights. Here's hoping the rapidly approaching autumn also delivers the goods...

Sunday 7 July 2013

Leg it - it's the Rozzers!

6th July
Well, just the one to be precise, but that'll do. It had been a fairly eventful day for birds already (more on that later) before Will burst into the flat at about half past ten tonight with the call that ‘Graham’s got a Roseate Tern at South Light, I’ll wait for you in the van’ This is a major bird for Shetland (only the 10th ever it would seem) and the just the third for Fair Isle, with the previous records in 1988 and 1996. At the time however, we didn’t know the details, we just knew it was late and there was a very good bird at the opposite end of the island. Sure enough, by the time I’d grabbed my bins and got dressed (I was on my way to bed!), the van was parked at the door, with the engine revving and we were off…
We got there to find a very happy Graham with the bird in the scope – the light was going, the wind was blowing, but there was no mistaking a beautiful Roseate Tern, shining in the gathering gloom. It had been found whilst joining the flock of Arctic Terns hawking for moths over the fields near Utra (when it drew attention to itself with its distinctive call) before being refound in a roost of 120 or Arctic Terns on the rocks at South Light. It remained until near dusk when it was lost from view during a dread of the flock, but by that time the light was poor enough that it was presumably just tucked away in the flock somewhere.
Sadly there were no photos taken of the Roseate Tern. These are some of 40 or so Arctic Terns that were catching moths (mostly Map-winged Swifts it appeared) yesterday in the same area towards dusk.
It wasn’t the only good bird on the island today, with a lovely male ‘western’ Subalpine Warbler (I’m told it’s lovely, I’ve managed to miss it every time I’ve looked) that had been found at the Haa yesterday still present. That’s five Subalpine Warblers this year now and it has kept the spring migration going longer than we expected; it was further extended with a Common Rosefinch found at Schoolton today. A few hirundines included at least two Sand Martins, a couple of Swallows and at least four House Martins, which included a pair nest building on cliffs on Meoness, an exciting development as they last bred on Fair Isle in 1986).
The Common Rosefinch tries to disguise itself amongst the local House Sparrows, but manages to stand out by being plainer!
After seemingly stalling in the last week, the Crossbill invasion picked up pace again today, with around 20 scattered around the island – Two-barred in the next few days perhaps…? There were still 2 Marsh and one Reed Warbler present today, along with several of the other birds that seem set to linger in the summer.
A Grey Heron in the Gully was the first of the autumn, yesterday saw the first Green Sandpiper of the autumn as well, with other new birds including Short-eared Owl, Red-breasted Merganser and a third Woodpigeon.
Fair Isle Wrens are amongst the birds to have obvious fledged youngsters now, with this one frequenting the Obs garden.
There’s a renewed sense of  the chance of more good birds in the next few days, so tomorrow will see the island being scoured and maybe something else being found. The way this spring is going, who knows what it might be…

Saturday 6 July 2013

Early July Update

4th July
The weather has been fairly mild recently, but a bit mixed.
The summer typically sees around a dozen or so cruiseships visit the island, with a display of island crafts set up in the hall. This continues the old Fair Isle tradition of bartering goods with passing boats, although in a safer and more comfortable environment than when islanders would have rowed out to meet boats in their yoals. Also a more modern way of trading are the websites of several islanders who are now able to sell the famous Fair Isle knitwear around the world. These visitors from an Australian cruiseship company that called in to the island on Friday morning are perusing the goods of Elizabeth Riddiford of Schoolton.
We had another enjoyable Fair Isle Thursday this week, with music by Neil, Stewart and young Stewart. Even Freyja got to have a go at playing some tunes with Shirva Stewart!
Surely this must be summer now? The weather might not always seem to agree (we’ve had a couple of greyer, wetter days in the last week), but the Log is finally starting to reflect the end of spring passage. That said, a male Red-backed Shrike was caught in the Vaadal on 2nd July, an unusually late record (the bird was regrowing half its tail, so perhaps it had survived a run-in with a predator somewhere in the Northern Isles and was heading off again having become more mobile). Also new was a Long-eared Owl in the South Raeva on 29th June - who knows where that was heading? The 30th saw new Blackcap and Willow Warbler trapped on morning rounds (I’d love to find out which way they went after leaving Fair Isle), but the Ring Ouzel at the Kirn o’Skroo (found on 30th and still present on 4th) may have been a lingering bird, as it had a damaged leg, so could have been the similarly disadvantaged individual seen in early June (and perhaps also responsible for the sighting in the Kirn on 15th June).
Hiya! The Ring Ouzel waves hello.
The Black Redstart on 27th at Barkland may also have been lurking somewhere since the last sighting (on 16th). Two Woodpigeon on 1st-2nd July were new, but didn’t really compete with the Bridled Tern, Pacific Golden Plover or Two-barred Crossbill found on other offshore UK outposts at the same time, such is the unpredictable marvel of early summer migration.

A good ‘at sea’ record was a stunning adult Pomarine Skua which followed the Good Shepherd for about five miles or so as it approached the island on 4th, with two Manx Shearwaters seen on the same trip.
The rest of the migrants were pretty much all lingering birds, with three Marsh Warblers still around early this month, a Reed Warbler still in the Obs garden, no sign of the Subalpine Warbler after the 27th (it either departed or succumbed in the very wet day on 28th), a couple of Chiffchaff at the Obs, Tree Sparrows still lingering (no sign of them nesting, although only one bird has been seen the last couple of days…), a couple each of House Martin, Swift and Swallow, Collared Dove, Robin and Blackbird (the latter two both still lurking surreptitiously at the Obs).
Presumed wandering failed breeders included 3 Wigeon, Golden Plover, and increasing Redshank, Curlew and Turnstone numbers, although the Whimbrel sightings are trickier to work out, with birds having been recorded continually throughout the spring. The male Tufted Duck is also still lurking around the island’s water bodies. A juvenile Black-headed Gull on 1st was the first wandering youngster from populations elsewhere (possibly Shetland given that it was seen over North Light).
A Herring Gull chick on Goorn, where the mixed gull colony contains four species (although only one pair each of Great Black-backed and Common) and seems to be doing well so far this year.
Breeding bird news has seen the first Arctic Skua and Kittiwake chicks hatch, but sadly the odds are against either of them surviving (although the Arctic Skua nest is the same one that has reared the only chick to fledging in the last two years, so perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope), whilst on land there are several fledged Wheatear and Twite now roaming the island top.
The recently hatched Arctic Skua chick.
The summer also sees the National Trust work camp visit the island, which is an opportunity to get some of the jobs done that benefit from extra pairs of keen hands. We've got a few jobs lined up at the Obs, but I'd best not list them here in case any of the volunteers are reading and decide they don't want to do them!
This picture from March shows the damage to the stone dyke breakwater at the Skadan after the monster waves that also demolished the South Light wall. The debris was strewn across a large area of grass heading towards the Puffinn.

And here it is rebuilt wall after a full day's work by the workcamp and several of the Obs team and led by Iain and Daniel from Setter.

The cleared area of grass is now looking a lot better (and suitable for football!).


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