Friday 10 October 2014

I'm a Creeper, I'm a weird record, What the heck am I doing here, I don't belong here.

8th-9th October
The star bird of the 9th.
If the excitement of a Barn Owl didn’t exactly set the pages of Birdforum alight, it’s fair to say that the next couple of days would also be unlikely to see any charters winging our way, and yet the birding was some of the most enjoyable of the year so far.
With a light to fresh easterly wind (NE at first veering SE later), it felt good – and it was. Thrushes were the most obvious arrivals on 8th, with the final Log totals of 1921 Song Thrush (a particularly good count), 876 Redwing, 129 Blackbird, 126 Robin, 61 Blackcap and 46 Goldcrest giving an idea of the bulk of the birds to be found.
A decent number of birds have been ringed during the current fall, including this female Sparrowhawk. (photo: Ciaran Hatsell)
It wasn’t long before highlights started to appear amongst them, with a Buzzard first seen over the Hill Dyke then a Great Grey Shrike found behind Lower Leogh.
Buzzards are less than annual on Fair Isle, so this was a good record. (photo: Rochard Cope)

The Great Grey Shrike with prey (photo: Ciaran Hatsell)
Other species still present included an Olive-backed Pipit at Pund, with possibly the same bird later in the Gully (both sightings are taken as referring to the same bird as was seen briefly at Hjukni Geo on 7th for now), the 3 Tundra Bean Geese (seen properly today!), a Little Bunting at Pund (possibly a different individual to the one at Walli Burn on 7th), a Yellow-browed Warbler at the Obs, Slavonian Grebe in South Harbour, the two roaming male Pochard, 3 Lapland Bunting and yesterday’s Dotterel was joined by a second.
Rarer than Lancey: 2 Pochards on Easter Lother Water.
A few new species included Redstart, Stonechat, Quail and a male Gadwall (in a good current spell for wildfowl), whilst other healthy counts included 476 Pink-footed, 112 Greylag and 95 Barnacle Geese, 24 Jack Snipe, 139 Snipe, a wonderful 13 Short-eared Owl, 34 Ring Ouzel, 68 Wheatear, 144 Brambling, 25 Reed Bunting and 2 Tree Pipit (showing that they aren’t all OBPs!). The day was lacking that one big rarity until just after 1pm, when the run to School to pick Grace up resulted in a major Fair Isle rarity being found at Upper Stoneybrek. The fact that it was a Blue Tit may not have been what people were expecting (although it turned out to be part of a decent arrival in the Northern Isles), but as it’s only Fair Isle’s 13th, and just the second record since 1989 (following one in 2012) we weren’t complaining.
Much rarer than Lancey!
A calm morning on 9th gave way to an increasing westerly breeze, although the early morning rain cleared giving a cool, but pleasant day in the field. It was immediately obvious that there’d been a clear out of thrushes (with counts of 618 Song Thrush, 23 Blackbird and 7 Ring Ouzel for example showing large decreases from yesterday) and most other species also diminishing in number. The only species to show a significant increase was Brambling, with 169 Logged (thanks largely to a flock of 105 in North Naaversgill). Familiar faces included the Blue Tit (which reappeared at Midway, assuming it was the same bird…), Olive-backed Pipit (at Ditfield, with another possible not far away – I suspect it may only be a matter of time before more than one is confirmed), Little Bunting at Chalet, the Buzzard again floating about, the two Pochard still roaming, Hen Harrier, Slavonian Grebe and a good selection of geese, with 538 Pink-feet, 149 Barnacle and now 4 Tundra Beans, whilst a Shoveler added to the recent duck list.
Olive-backed Pipit at Ditfield, showing better than the photo would suggest.
Slavonian Grebe in South Harbour - presumbaly the bird seen off Hjukni Geo a couple of days ago.
The three Tundra Bean Geese at Barkland (another single was seen on Meoness and lingered with Pink-feet for a while before heading south).
New highlights were hard to come by, although Yellow-browed Warblers increased to 3 and a Long-eared Owl showed well near South Light (from where a blue Fulmar was seen offshore), that was until late in the afternoon, when a visiting group called with the news of a Treecreeper at South Light. A frantic twitch later saw most people getting views of this impressively frosty northern bird, which relocated to nearby Smirri Geo, as it scurried around seemingly quite contentedly on the lichen covered rocks.
The mystery bird from the photo at the top of the blog - 'Northern' Treecreeper, showing it's pale 'frosty' upperparts.

Very clean and white with a dazzling white supercillium, most (possibly all) of the previous Shetland records have thought to be Northern 'familiaris' birds, including the eight previous Fair Isle records (making this species even rarer than Blue Tit on the island, with previous records in 1906, 1913, 1959, 1980, 1987, 1993, 1998 and 2010).
So with the recent highlights reading: Barn Owl, Treecreeper, Blue Tit and Buzzard it’s been a strange few days, with that list looking more reminiscent of a pleasant woodland walk on the UK mainland than the peak of autumn migration on Fair Isle, although I’m sure it’s not over yet (but will the next decent bird be of locally-exciting calibre of Jay or something a bit more hoped for by our visitors…).
Geese feeding below the Shetland flag.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Barn Storm

5th-7th October
Storm 10 at times: the view from the Obs this morning (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
After the excitement of the White’s Thrush on 4th, things quietened down on 5th, with lingering scarcities including a Bluethroat and 2 Yellow-browed Warblers and a fresh southerly breeze not encouraging that many migrants, although 40 Whooper Swans were impressive and a Slavonian Grebe off Hjukni Geo was the first of the year.
A very strong SE wind on 6th made birding difficult, with severe gale force winds later in the day being accompanied by rain, but it was obvious that birds were coming in and the day finished with high counts including 570 Song Thrush, 293 Redwing, 36 Goldcrest and 25 Robin, whilst highlights included 2 Little Buntings, a Dotterel (with the Golden Plover flock on Lerness) and some decent wildfowl movement that included 2 Pochard (a rare bird on Fair Isle, with less than 60 records) and the first Scaup of the year (a smart male in the Havens, that then appeared on the cliffs of Easter Lother).
After first being seen in the Havens, it's possible that this bird was maybe attacked by Bonxies, forcing it onto the atypical habitat of the cliffs. What was very possibly the same bird was present on 7th off Hjukni Geo. A Long-tailed Duck seen on Suka Mire and Easter Lother on 7th was also a species in less than expected habitat. (photo: Ciaran Hatsell).
The 7th opened with the promise of birds to come, but it was clear that it would have to wait as the driving rain continued and the SE winds were absolutely lashing the island, reaching Storm 10 and making walking pretty difficult, let alone birding. We did manage to get a bit of goose scanning in and picked out 4 Barnacle Geese darvic rings (which are likely to be birds ringed in Svalbard, but we’ll update you on those later), amongst the 139 Barnacle Geese, with 490 Pink-feet and 94 Greylag also present, along with 22 Whooper Swans.
The Barnacle Geese have remained relatively settled below Shirva for a couple of days, allowing good opportunities for scoping them.
The rain eventually cleared at about 3pm, the wind eased slightly (30mph+ still wasn’t exactly calm) and a frantic dash around the census areas as the light began to fade saw the slightly more sheltered west cliffs heaving with birds, although viewing was still difficult. An Olive-backed Pipit put in a brief appearance at Hjukni Geo, a Little Bunting roamed south east and other highlights included a late Quail, a Yellow-browed Warbler at the Obs, the Dotterel (which flew south down the island), Hen Harrier, Lapland Bunting, Long-eared Owl and both Pochard still present on Da Water. It was the number of birds that was most notable though as, even allowing for the conditions, Log totals included 864 Song Thrush, 346 Redwing, 72 Brambling, 32 Robin, 22 Blackbird, 15 Siskin, 25 Woodpigeon, 19 Jack Snipe, 59 Snipe, 10 Woodcock (the first of the autumn), 9 Reed Bunting, 5 Dunnock, 3 ‘North-western’ Common Redpolls and single Jackdaw (the first of the autumn) and Fieldfare. Not bad!
Good numbers of Jack Snipe were seen today, but getting good views was another matter altogether, so well done to Ciaran for this picture.
Having warned at the previous evening’s Log that we could expect almost anything to turn up with the current weather, it was still a surprise to receive a call from John Day (a friend from my days working at the Lodge back when it were all nowt but trees) late in the afternoon saying he’d just seen a Barn Owl. What’s more his description (‘in the field with the Barnacle Geese and the two cows’) meant it was right behind me as I had just started to walk up Malcolm’s Head. I turned round and started getting the news out and, as I was doing so, it flew from the burn and headed towards me, flopping regularly into the grass. It spent some time out in the open before dropping into Steensi Geo, where it appeared to roost on the cliffs. An amazing record and well worth the pint I owed John for adding a species to my Fair Isle list.
With just five previous records, this is a major Fair Isle bird. The fact that they all occured between 1924 and 1958 (and the last three were all seen by the same person) means that it ranks pretty high on the 'most-wanted' list of staff and islanders for those species on the Fair Isle list and it attracted a reasonable twitch. Interestingly, all bar one of the previous records was also an alba-type white-breasted bird rather than the perhaps more expected dark-breasted guttata. It really is a bizarre and sensational record, but where has this bird come from?
Amazingly, one of our guests had given a talk on Barn Owls on Sunday evening. I'm not sure if it's the first talk on that subject in FIBO's history, but the remarkable coincidence of the occurence of this bird so soon after has led to calls for a talk on Siberian Blue Robin soon!

As a postscript to the amazing Barn Owl story, as I was sat at the base of Malcolm's Head keeping an eye on the owl as it sat in the field in front of me, a large flock of Pink-feet went up having seen approaching 'twitchers'. I swung my camera round, managed to get one in-focus shot of the flock and then went back to keeping an eye on the owl. It was only when looking at the photo back in the office that I noticed that there seem to be three Tundra Bean Geese in the shot! Can you spot them?
So, storm force winds, a Fair Isle mega and a major thrush fall, and yet I think the main excitement could still be to come from this week yet…

Sunday 5 October 2014

All White on the night

27th September - 4th October
Well, it’s been an interesting few days since the last update, with some strong westerly winds and the odd bout of easterlies that hadn’t really delivered on their promise (to Fair Isle at least). There’s no denying that it’s been tough going at times, with White’s Thrush, Siberian Rubythroat and Yellow-rumped Warbler not far north of us and Eye-browed Thrush and Pechora Pipit gracing our neighboursto the south, whilst top-quality rarities seemed largely to pass us by. Various theories were put forward (including: ‘the wrong kind of weather’, ‘a curse’ or having had ‘too much good fortune in the spring’), but we were all hopeful it was just one of those things and everything would come good. There’s certainly been no flagging from the Wardening team, with double-census on most days, whilst some really keen visitors have also covered many miles of ditches, fields and cliffs, but sometimes things just don’t go your way.
There have been arrivals of common migrants including good numbers of Brambling.
There have still been some decent birds about, with old favourites including the Rose-coloured Starling lingering to 3rd (when it was seen looking rather bedraggled after some heavy rain and poor weather), the Bluethroat at Pund throughout, daily records of up to 5 Yellow-browed Warblers and up to 2 Common Rosefinch (to 30th September). New scarcities included Wryneck and Barred Warbler on 29th, a Little Bunting on 30th, the first Grey Phalarope of the year on 2nd (a bird on the sea off Da Burrian) and 2 Richard’s Pipits on 3rd (one to 4th) with other migrants of note including a Hen Harrier from 1st, a peak of 122 Redwing on 30th Sep and the first North-western Common Redpoll of the autumn on 3rd.
Richard's Pipit in the Parks, the first sign of new passerine arrivals for a while.
The lack of rostrata/islandica-type Redpolls had been a bit of a surprise given the westerly winds, with other birds from that direction clearly arriving, including a surge in Wheatear numbers that peaked at 182 on 28th (most of which were leucorhoa ‘Greenland’ birds), the first Whooper Swans of the autumn (from 27th Sep and peaking at 30 on 29th) and daily Pink-footed Goose records. The latter benefitted from a relatively calm day on 4th, with several skeins on the move (a large number of which spent at least part of the day resting on Mire of Vatnagaard) and a final total of 1105 logged (along with 72 Barnacle Geese, 22 Greylag, 68 Wigeon and 10 Red-breasted Merganser).
Whooper Swan passage over Fair Isle is quite variable, but these were part of an impressive group on 29th which toured the island, providing a wonderful spectacle as they trumpetted there way around.
The 4th also brought a large amount of rain, which made census impractical for the morning (we did try, but with rain-soaked bins and birds clearly keeping to cover, it proved a thankless task), but by about 3pm, the downpour had finally stopped and census was on, surely this was the day that Fair Isle would wake from its temporary slumbers…
Early signs were slow (although singles of Pomarine Skua, Sooty Shearwater, Storm Petrel and blue Fulmar were seen from the Good Shepherd) with a Little Bunting at Chalet then Pund the pick of the crop, but it was good to be birding in calm, dry conditions and it really felt promising. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a certain element of surprise when Richard phoned to say ‘WHITE'S THRUSH near Wester Lother’! The Obs machine was put into full effect rounding up people from across the island and this notorious skulker, which often leads potential observers on a merry dance went on to not only show well to everyone, but also to treat us to a merry dance!
The White's Thrush was found by Richard as it fed on the slope behind Wester Lother. It spent most of the time out in the open, often just under this ridge, where good scope views were obtained. Photo: Ciaran Hatsell.
The 13th record for Fair Isle, they are always an absolutely fantastic bird to see, with Ciaran’s video below (taken not long before dusk), showing the species curious ‘bobbing’ motion when feeding. So, despite a few quiet days, things are definitely looking up, with a lot of happy staff (none more so than Ciaran who was marooned on the ‘wrong’ Farne Island when one turned up there in 2012; although spare a thought for poor David Steel, his colleague on Brownsman at the time, who had just been visiting Fair Isle, but left the day before the White’s Thrush was found) and guests last night. It could be an interesting spell coming up as well, with some fresher southerly winds giving way to a few days of SE winds (gale force at times), bringing a lot of rain, but maybe more birds…  

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