Wednesday 20 August 2014

First Autumn Update.

Right then, where to start?! Sorry it’s been a while since the last update, it’s been a particularly busy summer and the time has flown by since I last did anything to the blog. First of all, all is well in the Parnaby family; Grace starts ‘big school’ today (and is very excited about it), Freyja is growing up fast as well (she’s chatting away and generally enjoying life) and we’ve had visits from both sets of parents this month (and many, many thanks to them all for their help during their ‘holidays’).
The children have enjoyed the summer and have made regular visits to the hills to help me locate skua nests (you can use the stoops of Arctic Skuas on the kids to triangulate the location of a chick quite successfully!), although here they are enjoying the more relaxed atmosphere of the Puffin colony on Roskillie.
We’ve had a turnover of staff at the Obs as well, with Angela ending her stint as Cook (all at FIBO wish her and her family well now they’ve moved on from Fair Isle), Kharis coming to the end of her contract as Domestic Assistant (and hopefully coming back to visit so she can finish my knitting lessons) and Alice finishing her spell as Childminder (and we send her good luck with her studies and thanks for being a good friend to the kids). They’ve been replaced by the familiar faces of Ann (returning as Cook) and Marilyn (our Childminder in 2011), whilst Terri has arrived for her first season as Domestic Assistant. We’ve also had Langdon come and go as a JHMF volunteer and currently have Alex and Raeannon filling similar roles.

Bird wise, it’s continued to be a really good season for many seabirds, I’ll do another update on them at some stage (hopefully!), but whatever else this season brings, one of the standout memories will be the enjoyment of seeing, hearing and smelling a healthy seabird colony in full swing.  
At least a dozen Arctic Skua chicks have fledged, with most of them going on to survive the attentions of Bonxies. This fledged chick on Gilsetter is about to be fed by a parent. After just one chick fledged in the previous three years I've been here, this has been a fantastic season (although breeding numbers are still low).

Guillemots (like this one with its fledged chick) and Razorbills have both had their most succesful seasons for some time, the sound of Guillemot chicks calling could be heard drifting in through the lounge windows on still evenings in late July for the first time since I've been on Fair Isle.

Kittiwakes are another species to have done well, with youngsters fledging from several nests - the first ones for four years. A small increase in the population was noted as well, although we're still over 18,000 pairs down on the counts of 20 years ago. Shags have also had a much more productive season than recent years, although they are also much reduced in numbers

A Puffling, one of several that were reared this year.
And a comparison of typical beak-fulls in 2014 (left, by Richard Cope) and 2013 (right) being brought in to the young Puffins.
Although the abundance of small fish in Fair Isle waters has been the reason for the much better year for seabirds, it's not clear why sandeels and other species have reappeared in such numbers. It may just be a one-off, or it may be the start of a better run of years, but either way, we've enjoyed it.
As July came to an end, migration was predictably slow, although a good series of Manx Shearwater records included 15 on 30th, the second highest Fair Isle count. Storm Petrel ringing showed that there were really impressive numbers present, with three-figure catches the norm. Leach’s Petrels were heard during most sessions and the Swinhoe’s Petrel was also present on several nights (it was last recorded on 1st August, with a busy session on 5th/6th producing no record of it and 75 minutes on 15th/16th August also drawing a blank). The weather in August hasn’t allowed for many sessions, although we may enjoy a slightly calmer spell later this week, which could allow us to try again.
Storm Petrel ringing has again proved very popular with lots of our guests (photo by Glen Tyler).
Although August opened with south-easterly winds, things were generally quiet until 5th, when new migrants were headlined by a Barred Warbler (with 3 more arriving on 15th). The 6th produced the best bird of the autumn so far in Fair Isle terms, with a Red-necked Phalarope at Utra, whilst there was also a Greenish Warbler trapped in the Gully and the next day saw a Wryneck appear in the Plantation. 
Logan Johnson found this juvenile Red-necked Phalarope, the 25th for Fair Isle and the first since 2005.
This Greenish Warbler was the second of the year, but the first in the UK this autumn. What was presumably the same bird (a similarly bright individual with a ring on the right leg) was in the south of Shetland the next day. Fair Isle also recorded the first Barred Warbler and Wryneck of the autumn for the country.
Further scarcities amongst the small numbers of common warblers and other migrants included Common Rosefinch and Marsh Warbler on 15th and a couple of Wood Warblers, whilst the biggest surprise has been the occurrence of Blyth’s Reed Warblers on 14th and 16th, the first August records for Fair Isle. Also unexpected was the return of the Kumlien’s Gull, which has lingered on the island from January to June (and was probably the Iceland Gull present on a couple of dates in July).
The second Blyth's Reed Warbler of the month (and 5th of the year!). The first involved four of the Wardening team spending about three and a half hours in the Gully (and at least two people ending up knee-deep in the stream), whilst the second was slightly more cooperative, appearing on the fence outside the AW office window. The bird on the 14th was the joint-earliest ever autumn record in the UK, although it's high fat score (6, with a weight of over 15g), suggested it had probably been present nearby for a day or two at least. Both were first-winter birds.
The somewhat extreme weather from 9th (more on that later) produced some good numbers of waders, with highlights including a Fair Isle record 4 Wood Sandpipers and up to 19 Ruff, 22 Common Sandpipers (the second highest autumn count), 10 Green Sandpipers and 9 Greenshank. All the sightings are listed in full at:
The wader scrape has been looking rather impressive after some good repair work by the team on the sluices earlier in the year.
Other wildlife has included a twitchable Basking Shark off Skadan.
This Sitochroa palealis (also known as Sulphur Pearl) was found by Susannah in the Obs garden and was a first for Scotland, having never been recorded further north in the UK than East Yorkshire.
A good spell of butterfly records included a few Small Tortoiseshell (like this one at the Obs) and Peacock, with reasonable
numbers of Red Admiral and Painted Lady.
Congratulations to Mr and Mrs Veitch-Thomson after a wonderful wedding, during which the whole island was filled with their friends and relatives. The day started with a wonderful sunrise, although the weather did deteriorate somewhat...
The biggest island news has been the wedding of Inness Thomson (eldest son of Pat and Neil Thomson of Lower Stoneybrek) and Karen Veitch on 9th August, which coincided with a record-breaking rainfall for Fair Isle, when a week of sunshine was brought to an abrupt end by 5.5inches of rain! The rain really was a rather dramatic event, with roads (and the Obs car park and garage) flooded and a bit of movement around the island as a huge amount of water rushed to the sea, taking large chunks of the island with it.
Gilsetter became a lake for a while.
The Vaadal stream  became the Vaadal river (as did the road north).
If it's going to rain on your wedding day, you're better off having a record-breaking day rather than just some drizzle! It was certainly a memorable day for everyone, with the shuttling of guests up and down from the Obs rather interesting as the water levels rose and the roads became decent wader habitat (I had to stop for a Green Sandpiper on the road at Field at one point). The Fire Service came to check out the Obs to see if we would need water pumping out of the car park, but thankfully some frantic late-night ditch digging by the team was enough to prevent the building flooding.
Water rushing down the Gully provided some dramatic rapids.
A lot of changes were visible after the flood water had receded, with the Gully having been somewhat hammered. Notice the amount of rocks that have been thrown through the fence surrounding the Gully plantation. The Mills have survived, but have been severely undercut and the first hefty winter storm is likley to see some more movement.
A large land-slip at Wester Lother will have destroyed a few late Shag nests and also seems to have done for our anchor points used for accessing the colony here.
Smaller land slips have occurred in several areas of the island, this one is at Wirvie. Fair Isle is not a big island, and I do worry that if bits keep falling off, there'll be none left eventually!
So that’s an update on life on Fair Isle in the last month, but what will the next month bring? The AW’s are back from their holidays refreshed and ready for the autumn, the forecast suggests we may get easterly winds from the end of the weekend (still time to book a late room at our special August rate, if you fancy taking a chance…) and I’ll try to keep the blog more up to date from now on!
There are several areas of cliff-top that look likely to see more movement during the rest of the year, so please be careful if you're visiting us this autumn. I'm a bit worried that this one looks rather like the crack in the skin of the Universe that caused Dr Who a few problems.

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