Friday 21 February 2014

Gulls, Geese and an Owl.

20th February
The Kumlien's Gull in fading light (hence it looking somewhat darker than it actually is in this image).
A generally quiet period, with some beautiful days but also some more SE gales and heavy rain. After the ‘transport chaos’ of January, things returned to more or less normal, with the Good Shepherd managing its scheduled sailings before heading off for its annual maintenance and flights making it in on most days. A lot of the island is still rather sodden, so we’ll hopefully get a dry period before the spring starts, but the rather mild winter continues – no snowmen this year by the look of it.
Wet and windy weather is thought to be more damaging to the Fair Isle Wren population than cold snaps (their preferred seaweedy habitat rarely freezing anyway), so it will be interesting to see what the result of this year’s breeding survey will be. The first Wren was heard singing in the Havens on 17th, although it’ll be another month or so before territories are properly established and the survey starts.
Also on the breeding bird front, Guillemots have been around in numbers (but have not yet been returning to the cliffs), although small numbers are still being washed up dead. We also got news from the BTO that one of our breeding Puffins (ringed as an adult in 2012) was amongst the casualties of a wreck affecting birds in the Bay of Biscay; more pressure on our already beleaguered seabird populations.
Migration was as slow as would be expected in mid-February, with some passage of Greylags noted (peaking at 142 on 19th), which also saw the 5 Tundra Bean Geese depart from Utra (they were last seen on 16th). Other wildfowl records included a Long-tailed Duck and 3 Red-breasted Mergansers sheltering amongst 75 Eider during stormy conditions on 15th.
Greylags on the move. The sheep is probably thankful for some peace and quiet.
The most unexpected migrant was a Long-eared Owl (18th), whilst there was also the first Rook of the year (13th-17th) and 2 Cormorant (18th). There were still just single figures of Skylark and Meadow Pipit, whilst small numbers of thrushes saw Fieldfares peak at 52 (19th) and there were up to 19 Twite, 12 Snow Bunting and the occasional Woodcock.
Long-eared Owl. Always a beautiful bird and an especially nice surprise at this time of year.
Lingering birds included the juvenile Kumlien’s Gull throughout (with occasional sightings of other white-wingers peaking on 15th when there were also two juvenile Iceland Gulls and an adult and juvenile Glaucous Gull), Coot (until 13th), Woodpigeon, Water Rails (at Lower Stoneybrek, Setter and Da Water), Merlin and Peregrine (a hefty female that was seen taking a male Teal off Da Water).
So it’s steady away as we prepare for the start of the new season; as ever there is plenty to do but things are progressing nicely. We’ll hopefully have news on the 2014 team by early next week, and maybe news on a few migrants soon as well.
With a lack of many new birds to report, here's another picture of the Coot (picture by Deryk Shaw).

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Gulls, geese and a few hints of spring.

11th February
We made it back: after a FIBOT Directors’ Meeting, a fortnight in Tenerife, a nephew’s Christening and a weather-induced extra week off Fair Isle (spent in Sunderland, Boat of Garten, Ellon and Lerwick), we got back home on Tuesday. Since then we’ve been catching up with emails, post, messages etc and, more importantly, catching up with people and birds!
There are no holiday pictures here (I might do some of the birds in the next day or two), so straight onto Fair Isle news.
January had already started well with the first live Velvet Scoter since 2011 on 1st, but went on to produce two other birds that didn’t feature on the 2013 year list: Little Gull (an adult on 22nd and 30th) and Tundra Bean Goose. The latter starting arriving on 21st and peaked at 15 on 23rd, with smaller numbers still present.
With only 31 individuals previoulsy recorded on Fair Isle, this adult Little Gull was a real winter bonus (picture by Deryk Shaw).
These two Tundra Bean Geese are part of one of the largest ever arrivals of this species to Fair Isle (although not approaching the record influx of November 2011).
The other star birds were Pochard (a male on the Haa pond on 29th, only the second record in the last six years) and not one, but two Coot! One was on Da Water from 29th (still present to 11th at least), with another on the pond at the Haa from 31st January to 6th February. The Haa pond is only a couple of square metres, but has already hosted Eider and Scaup amongst others, so is getting a very impressive list! The Haa also hosted a Waxwing on the 23rd, one of an increasing number of mid-winter records.
Coot! The first ever 'Fair Isle rare' I twitched, so it still gives me a thrill to see one on Fair Isle (albeit distantly in this case!).
Typical winter fodder included a few sightings of Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, with one of the Icelands (present from 29th January) ticking all the boxes for Kumlien’s.
With it's fairly extensive dark markings on the primaries, dark bill and chesty appearance, this darkish juvenile Iceland Gull shows all the characteristics of 'Kumlien's Gull', (which are probably a hybrid swarm of Iceland and Thayer's Gulls).
An unusual winter influx of Common Gulls from late January peaked at 180 on 31st January (a rather appropriate count for Deryk to get given his success at the Dart's club social whilst we were away!) and included up to four Black-headed Gulls, but nothing from the Arctic… A Little Auk was found very expired on Utra scrape on 5th, with Water Rail at Setter, occasional Merlin sightings and the lingering Woodpigeon present throughout.
The year list slowly increased with a variety of more expected returning birds including: Skylark, Twite, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher, Cormorant and Peregrine, whilst a Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot were less usual for the time of year.
Numbers of wildfowl were fairly typical with around 100 Greylag, 2 Pink-feet, 2 Barnacle Geese (on 1st Feb, a less usual winter occurence), 8 Wigeon, 13 Teal, Long-tailed Duck, 2 Common Scoter and a Red-breasted Merganser, with wader numbers including 8 Lapwing, 3 Dunlin, 15 Purple Sandpiper and singles of Jack Snipe and Woodcock.
The sheltered waters of the Havens often attract a few wildfowl in the winter, with a pair of Common Scoter lingering for several weeks this year. Sadly, the beaches of the Havens are seeing several dead birds being washed up at the moment, with Guillemots featureing most prominently, but Razorbill, Shag and Fulmar also logged this week.
Wintering passerine numbers were unremarkable, with up to 35 Fieldfare, 18 Snow Bunting and 2 Robin and only a few Blackbird and Redwing.
Today is being dominated by strong SE winds and rain, which was the predominant weather whilst we were away, with the galeiest spell for around 20 years hitting the island. The ground is pretty sodden in many places around the island, whilst the Good Shepherd was unable to sail for almost a month (which appears to be the worst disruption to the service for over 40 years according to the Fair Isle Times) due to the wind and swell. Thankfully, a calmer day on Friday saw the crew put in a gruelling double shift and two runs to Grutness has seen most of the backlog cleared from the store – Stackhoull on Saturday morning was a sight to behold! There are a few hopeful signs that things might be improving now (notwithstanding today’s weather which has seen travel to and from the island again cancelled), with Dave Wheeler reporting that yesterday’s 4.7hrs of sunshine made it the sunniest day on the Isle since 1st October!
OK, just the one holiday photo then. An American Coot jostling with Moorhen and Coot for some doughnut. Whilst watching this bird (we were passing within about half a mile of Loch Flemington, so it would have been rude not to pop in) in the sunshine with the family, a Red Kite flew over and Sunderland scored twice against Newcastle. With various oddities turning up around the UK, there's still hope of the unsettled weather bringing an early Mega to Fair Isle.

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