Monday, 19 August 2013

Swinteresting Times

19th August
Mystery bird! Go on then, if you saw this on the far side of the Barkland fields, whilst struggling to stay upright in a howling westerly wind what would you say it was? I'm glad I'd had better views the day before! (Answer in the text below).
Things went Swiningly for Petrel twitchers last week, with the Swinhoe’s Petrel retrapped during our regular Storm Petrel ringing sessions in the early hours of the mornings of 14th, 15th and 17th, delighting those folk who had come down with Swin Fever and tried one of the more audacious British twitches. Aside from guests who were already booked into the Obs (many of whom were seeing Storm Petrel for the first time at our ever popular ringing sessions), there have been 4 birders from Shetland and 19 from elsewhere in the UK that have made the journey since the second bird was first caught on August 11th. It’s great to share such a Swinbolic sighting with so many keen and enthusiastic people (although none of them were so excited that they needed Swin-hosing down afterwards) and I’m sure they’ve gone away with the feeling that Fair Isle is Swinply the best. We had ‘Swindled’ on standby as a pun as well, just in case the bird didn’t show! Thanks for the various people who have phoned, emailed and messaged me with Swinhoe’s puns: none of the above are mine!
The Swinhoe’s Petrel was also heard calling in the small hours of the night of the 15th/16th despite there being no trapping (or tape playing), but has not been heard since as strong westerly winds have dominated the last few days.
Interestingly, the first Swinhoe’s Petrel that was trapped (the bird that turned up when I was on holiday and has not been seen again) has been shown by Dr Martin Collinson and his team at Aberdeen University to have been a female. Hopefully recordings of the call of the second bird will help to confirm its sex (we suspect it is also female).
The Swinhoe's Petrel (by Kieran Lawrence)
Although we have been carrying out our Storm Petrel ringing sessions in exactly the same way as we had been for the last three years, it’s clear that the Swinhoe’s Petrel is not acting like most petrels (which are rarely retrapped during the same season) by returning to the mistnets so regularly. The weights we have taken have shown that the bird has remained in good health (presumably feeding out at sea during the day), but, having contacted the BTO to get an opinion on the unusual behaviour of this bird, we have agreed that it would be best to carry out no more Storm Petrel ringing sessions this year at the same location and, if we try any petrel ringing elsewhere, we’ll not be using the Swinhoe’s tape. That means it's extremely unlikely that we'll catch the Swinhoe's Petrel again (this year at least), although it will be interesting to see whether it's heard again in the Havens.
Citrine Wagtail and White Wagtail outside the Obs this afternoon (where Susannah was able to add it to her kitchen window list!).
Autumn migration is starting much more slowly than in recent Augusts, with several species yet to put in an appearance. That said, the Citrine Wagtail that arrived on 12th August was proved to be two birds on 16th (both were briefly at Da Water and then photographed separately later in the day, when subtle plumage differences were noted), with both still present today. In fact, given the multiple locations of the sightings today, there have even been suspicions of a third. After spoiling it for everyone with our Olive-backed Pipits, I wonder if Citrine Wagtail will also soon be bumped off the BBRC list, these being the 11th-12th birds here in the last three years (Arctic Warbler on 8 records in the last two years may even get there first…). The Subalpine Warbler remained until 16th at least, whilst scarcities battling through the conditions have included the first Barred Warbler (at Vaila’s Trees on 16th) and Common Rosefinch (at the Obs then Lower Stoneybrek on 18th) of the autumn. Other migrants included up to 3 Reed Warblers (16th), 2 Garden Warblers (15th-17th), a couple of Willow Warblers, Carrion Crow (14th), Collared Dove (15th & 17th), Sand Martin (15th), a couple of flyover (and therefore unidentified) Redpolls and a small increase in Meadow Pipits and alba Wagtails. The Cuckoo was still present to 18th and two Chiffchaff are lurking in the Obs garden but no Crossbills have been seen since 13th. 
Citrine Wagtail, apparently karate-kicking its prey to death.
The Spotted Redshank continued to mock my frantic dash to see it on its first night, by lingering sedately, mostly on Da Water, until 18th at least, where there was also Greenshank (15th) and up to four Ruff.
The Spotted Redshank (pictured here with a Dunlin) has become more settled on Da Water.
Ruff is a classic early August passage wader. Easterly winds in the next week could see some slightly scarcer species, such as Curlew Sandpiper or Little Stint turning up. Or perhaps something rarer...
The howling westerlies brought larger than usual numbers of common waders, including up to 4 Black-tailed Godwits and noticeable increases in Sanderling, Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshank, whilst a small arrival of Golden Plover included an unsettling leucistic bird (the 'mystery bird' pictured at the head of the blog and perhaps the same individual pictured last autumn on Shetland).
Black-tailed Godwit at Taft today.
A few Pufflings have made it into the Obs gardens recently before being released at sea, but seabirds are really dwindling away from the island now, with no Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes or Arctic Terns to be seen on most days.
With the wind set to ease (Dave Wheeler tells us that the 52mph recorded yesterday made it the first ‘gale-day’ on Fair Isle since 28th April) during the course of tomorrow, before switching to the east during the night, I suspect we may have a bit more bird news to come soon. Barred Warbler, gales and checking the weather forecast every few hours – autumn is here!


  1. Boo to the BTO! I thought a radio tracker was the next way to go, to find it's nest site or out how it spent it's days?

  2. The leucistic Golden Plover looks a dead ringer for the bird that hung out with the Tingwall valley Golden Plovers (and an American Golden) last autumn. Seen on a bright sunny day from a distance in long grass, all sorts of fevered possibilities sprang to mind. Well, two anyway. The reality was still striking, but nowhere near as dramatic as what I'd dared to hope for!


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