Thursday 10 October 2013

Shetland, Fair Isle and a sheep called Alan 27th September-7th October 2013

Syke's Warbler on Fair Isle

Almost a year in the planning, a trip to the far north of Britain came to fruition at a ridiculously early hour on 27th October at Birmingham Airport, in the company of Paul and Vicky Wren. It was dark and drear as we submitted ourselves to the care of Flybe for our flight to Aberdeen and then a change of plane and onwards to Mainland, which as it's name implies is the main island of Shetland and some seventy miles long. We had a three hour stopover at Aberdeen so managed to get a surprisingly good breakfast there at 8.30am. This being Scotland, parties of presumably oil-workers were already getting stuck into pints of lager and Red Bulls even at this early hour. I indulged in a spot of celebrity spotting as I noticed Mark Foster the Olympic Swimmer, sometime Strictly Come Dancing contestant  and all round celebrity sitting at the next table.

Eventually our flight was called and we boarded a turbo propeller airplane that looked like it had seen better days. It was raining - well this, as I said, is Scotland. The plane's propellers rotated and a soothing almost civilised roar emanated from the twin engines, quite different to the usual scream of jet engines. The roar however became much louder as we prepared for take off and the whole plane vibrated as the engines went to full throttle, indeed everyone in the plane seemed to vibrate in unison as we trundled down the runway and lumbered up into the low lying grey clouds. A single stewardess attended to the small number of passengers. She came round with a trolley and perfunctorily offered tea or coffee and then casually enquired of each passenger 'Do ye wanna biscuit wi' it?' Sophisticated this was not as she produced what looked suspiciously like a well used cardboard box with some of Scotland's finest cholesterol and tooth decay inducing confectionery lurking at the bottom. I selected a Tunnock's Caramel Waifer with the legend 'Over 5 million sold every week' proudly emblazoned on the wrapper. Ye gods - no wonder Scots have one of the worst health records in the civilised world and 'nae teeth'. I love my ancestral country but sometimes I wish we could change our eating and drinking habits.

'Our' plane at Sumburgh Airport

An hour later we were over Shetland, all green and barren, surrounded by vast amounts of sea. We landed not too smoothly at Sumburgh Airport and with hire car formalities quickly dispensed with we were on our way. Months of anticipation was about to be realised. We were birding on Shetland for the next three days and then onto the magical and legendary Fair Isle. Anything could happen - it could be disaster, it could be brilliant. We were in the lap of the weather and especially the winds.

Consulting the pager it became clear that there was an ongoing deluge, no, a veritable tsunami of Yellow browed Warblers. They were being reported from all over northern Scotland and especially Mainland. We selected Quendale as a suitable venue to try our luck - a farm yard with a small walled garden containing stunted sycamores and other trees and a rhubarb patch. It was not long before we saw our first Yellow browed Warbler, quickly followed by at least three more. Tiny green and yellow gems hardly bigger than a Goldcrest flicking through the wind blown tree leaves and consequently difficult to pick out. One even visited the rhubarb patch. What a great start to the holiday. A flock of Twite settled on the telephone wires and a Northern Wheatear bounced, jauntily upright, along the dry stone wall, flirting the white and black of it's tail. Two Ravens rolled in the strong wind, playing with each other as they rode the air currents with a casual grace belying their size.

A report came of an Arctic Warbler at a small place nearby called Bigton. Shetland does not have many trees and those that it does are stunted and wind blasted, usually in isolated locations or surrounding farmsteads or houses where they act as wind breaks. The magic of Shetland is that these trees and any bushes around houses can harbour literally anything at this time of year as it is the only cover available to birds apart from the ditches and dry stone walls. The Arctic Warbler was supposed to be in a small, isolated and stunted conifer stand  but all we found was yet another Yellow browed Warbler and a Blackcap. A Bonxie flew overhead and five properly wild Greylag Geese followed it over the hills and into the grey and murky distance.

We moved on to Channerwick and checked out an iris bed but only flushed some Twite and House Sparrows. A large Sycamore looked inviting but appeared birdless. Feeling the effects of my 4.30 am start in Oxfordshire I stood by a wall in the lee of the wind and contemplated the tree. Nothing. Half an hour passed as Paul and Vicky tramped fruitlessly around the surrounding ditches. A small bird suddenly appeared in the seemingly birdless tree. A Yellow browed Warbler. It sat for a while then flicked through the leaves and was gone. Then another appeared. Paul and Vicky joined me. A  high pitched pssweeet call came from the hillside behind us and another Yellow browed shot at great speed into the tree top. In the space of a day we had seen a minimum of ten Yellow browed Warblers. Amazing.They seemed to be in virtually every bush and tree on Shetland.

The day was now almost over so we made our way to our accommodation for the next three nights, Shalders Bed and Breakfast at Levenwick, to be greeted by Ann, the owner, with tea and cake and her loveable black Spaniel, Molly. After making ourselves comfortable we drove the short distance to the nearby gothic pile that is the Sumburgh Hotel for an evening meal, before returning for an early night at Shalders

Saturday the 28th dawned wet and grey. After some of the finest scrambled eggs I have ever had the pleasure of  consuming we bade goodbye for the day to Ann and Molly the Spaniel, the only dog I have met who barks at you on departure rather than on arrival. A report had come in the previous evening about a Brown Shrike at Wester Quarff. Brown Shrike is a very rare bird in Britain. A mega if you like that turn of phrase and description. We decided to go for it but first went to have another try to see the Arctic Warbler. We headed for Ellister ,very near to Bigton, as this was now where the Arctic Warbler was apparently residing. No luck again. I seemed fated to never see one but the usual suspects showed themselves and you guessed it, another half dozen Yellow browed Warblers. This was getting silly. There are just so many of them around at the moment. I hesitate to say it but I was in danger of suffering Yellow browed fatigue and I was only a day and a half into the trip. Now matters started to get interesting as we headed for Wester Quarff and our first major rarity.

Like most places in Shetland parking is very restricted on the narrow roads and it is not good form to use passing places in which to leave your car. We parked off the road up the hill from Wester Quarff by a field full of sheep. As we set off down the hill both Paul and myself distinctly heard a sheep call out 'Alan'. We turned and looked at the sheep. They carried on grazing. I shouted 'Alan?' and all bar one carried on ignoring us. A single sheep  looked at us intently. It's true, we swear. It was Alan. It had to be. Vicky said we were being silly.

We went down the road and joined a small group of birders looking into some distant iris filled ditches and there was the Brown Shrike, somewhat bedraggled but perky enough on a fence post. We watched it feeding and regularly lost it and re-found it as it moved along the fence line often out of view but always eventually showing itself. The very brown unmarked upperparts and pronounced black face mask were distinctive and what I most remember about it.

During the spells when the shrike was out of view I scanned some gardens next to the road. A warbler flew out of some stunted sycamores. Wait for it, wait for it. No it wasn't, so there! It was a Common ChiffChaff. Another warbler flew out and perched on the fence wire, a restless, wing flicking bundle of vitality. This time it was, inevitably, another Yellow browed Warbler. We found no less than another four and a Goldcrest, then, following a tip off we moved a few metres up the road to view a garden with no access but you could just see the pathway leading into the corner of the garden by crouching under a fuschia bush.

Here there was meant to be a Little Bunting but there seemed little chance of seeing it under the circumstances due to the extremely restricted viewing conditions and the number of birders present. However I chanced my arm and insinuated myself, crouching under the bush so I could just see part of the path. I was surrounded by birder paparazzi with their howitzer sized lenses but by some miracle the Little Bunting took that moment to pop out onto the path. It was one of those all too infrequent moments when everything gels into a satisfactory climax. I saw it close up and in it's full striated splendour, the rich rufous brown cheeks so very striking. A volley of camera shutters greeted it's appearance and  it fled. Thanks, you selfish toggers. 

Paul and Vicky consequently never got to see it.

We wandered back up the road to the car. Alan was still there, quietly pulling at the grass. We had a chat about mint sauce. 

A report of up to three Hornemann's Arctic Redpolls at Sullom found us heading out there. An area of pine and deciduous trees was the chosen haunt but there was no sign of any redpolls so we made do with a gloriously scarlet, male Common Crossbill and yet more Yellow browed Warblers. A group of five Blackbirds were obviously migrants being very wary and fleeing from our presence at a great distance. So very different to those in my garden in Oxfordshire. 

The day had been grey and damp throughout and time was wearing on with the light slowly fading.

One last stop was made at a place called Frakkafield where we walked round the periphery of a large wooded garden looking for an Olive backed Pipit reputed to be frequenting some willows overhanging a burn. We never found it, if indeed it was ever there but a small greyish brown and white bird flitted up onto the garden fence. A Pied Flycatcher. Quite a nice find. A group of Shetland Ponies came to say hello and three more Yellow browed Warblers zipped amongst the willows and garden trees.

Me and some indigenous friends

The pager announced that evening that a Pechora Pipit and a Thrush Nightingale had been found on the driveway of a house in Levenwick just a short way from Shalders! Our day finished as we left our stuff at Shalders, changed our clothes and returned to the Sumburgh Hotel for our evening meal. A helicopter landed on the lawn but no one thought this exceptional. A white Ferret wandered along the grass verge of the road as we returned in the rain to our lodging. So incongruous I felt it should be an omen but could not think for what.

Sunday dawned wet and windy but we resolved to make yet another attempt at seeing the Arctic Warbler at Ellister. Apparently it had been seen really well yesterday. However yesterday was calm and eventually dry but today was the exact opposite. We failed to find the Arctic Warbler but found another six Yellow browed Warblers. A report came through that the Pechora Pipit had been seen again so we beat a hasty retreat back to Levenwick and joined a small crowd scrutinising the driveway and adjacent garden of a house on the beach road. Nothing happened for quite some time apart from an appearance of the inevitable Yellow browed Warbler. There was, finally, a distant movement in the depths of the undergrowth at the back of the garden and I  briefly saw a tail and a body before they disappeared out of view in the gloom of the undergrowth. That was the Pechora Pipit. Half an hour passed and then there it was in all it's stripey magnificence, strutting about the grass at the back of the garden before yet again disappearing back into the undergrowth. 

Pechora Pipit c Paul Wren

The crowd visibly relaxed. Many left satisfied with what they had seen. I moved to the nearby drive to try my luck at the Thrush Nightingale. There was no joy but what did arrive was the Pechora Pipit  unexpectedly flying in from behind me, over my head and settling literally metres away from me and my fellow birders congregated at the end of the drive. The pipit strolled up and down the concrete driveway feeding contentedly with the resident House Sparrows. Then it was off, calling its zip zip zip call as it flew over us and into a garden on the other side of the road. The lady who lived in the original house was, as is the case with many native Shetlanders, extremely interested in the rare bird on her property and very friendly, even inviting us up the drive if we wished to watch from her house or to go into the garden. We explained it would be better to remain where we were but thanked her for her kindness. The pipit regularly returned to the driveway or the adjacent garden despite the frequent appearance of no less than four, fat and friendly tabby cats from the hedges lining the driveway. They seemed to be so well fed they showed absolutely no interest in the birds. So now we had yet another really good bird to add to our growing list. Some late Swallows passed over us and a single Brambling called from the sky above us.

We headed for nearby Sumburgh and scanned a likely looking bay for birds on the sea. Twenty Barnacle Geese flew south and there were up to six Red throated Divers on the sea with some Black Guillemots for company. Turnstones seemed to be everywhere on the shoreline and a few Sanderlings, constantly moving with restless energy, joined them on the sand. Grey Seals bobbed up and down further out in the sea. By the road to Sumburgh Head, at the back of Sumburgh Farm there are two old disused quarries which often provide shelter for migrant birds. The first quarry was a blank, not a bird to be seen apart from two pairs of Fulmars cackling away on a ledge. The second quarry looked to be similar but soon we discovered a female Common Redstart feeding under the overhanging quarry cliff face and a walk through a nearby nettlebed produced a migrant Robin and female Blackcap.

Common Redstart c Paul Wren

Returning to the road we found a magnificent male Greenland Wheatear perching fearlessly on fence posts and feeding frantically. It was very strongly marked, being almost orange underneath and showed little fear of us, so concerned was it on seizing every bit of prey it could find. Two 'normal' Northern Wheatears were more circumspect, allowing us to approach only so far before undulating off to crouch and bob on top of the dry stone walls. A really dark bird, sooty brown with hardly any visible streaking, flew up from the base of a wall. At first we were confused by it's appearance. It was very pipit like in it's actions and therein was the clue for as we got closer we saw that indeed it was a pipit - an abnormally dark coloured Rock Pipit, looking out of place amongst the more numerous paler Meadow Pipits, which seemed to rise from every tuft of grass and fly complaining with high pitched calls, to perch watchfully on top of the walls. Twite seemed to be everywhere, in small parties, feeding on seeding grasses. 

We walked to Grutness which was close by and checked yet another garden for a Common Rosefinch that had been reported a day or so earlier. Two ginger cats joined us and then disappeared into an extremely colourful and well kept garden that we could overlook from the road. At first apparently birdless, like so many Shetland gardens as you stand you find that there are indeed birds present. A Common ChiffChaff caused a flutter of excitement and nearly fell victim to one of the cats. A male Blackcap dropped from a bush onto a broad stone wall before thinking better of it and returning to the depths of a bush. The obligatory couple of Yellow browed Warblers played peek a boo in the rose trellis but there was no sign of the rosefinch We moved our position and waited. The cats rejoined us, winding around our legs and purring with pleasure when we stroked them. A movement out of the corner of my eye, and a grey bird flew fast into the depths of an ornamental bush. A tense wait and then up popped a Common Rosefinch. Dull grey brown with a streaky appearance on the paler breast it was nothing to write home about but still a good bird to see. We watched it for around five minutes before it dropped down out of sight into the deep cover of the garden.

Common Rosefinch c Paul Wren

I  was tired, as were Paul and Vicky, who had tramped around all the soggy ditches and wet fields in the hope of flushing some rare migrant bird. It was not to be but the nearby Pool of Virkie was, according to the pager, harbouring a Lesser Yellowlegs. We drove there quickly but the wader had flown. Just some Bar tailed Godwits, Curlew, Common Redshank, Dunlin  and a lone, forlorn Whimbrel, all standing or feeding on the muddy edges of the ebbing sea water. We went back for one more look at the Pechora Pipit which is one of Paul's favourites but it was only seen briefly on the drive before disappearing. I worked out that we had now seen in excess of fifty Yellow browed Warblers on our travels in the last three days. Quite remarkable.

Monday arrived sunny with a strong southeast wind. Normally wind from the southeast bodes well but it was just too strong. We tried once more for the Pechora Pipit but in the course of two hours there was no sign of it, only a female Brambling feeding with the House Sparrows on the drive. We gave up only to learn later in the day that the pipit had returned. Birders are usually a stoic breed and do not give up lightly so we decided on one more try to see an Arctic Warbler  a species which up to now had eluded us with consummate ease. Another had been reported from Loch of Voe where there was a long bank of small trees running between the road and the loch. Some scattered birders caught our attention beckoning to us as we arrived. The Arctic Warbler had just been heard and briefly seen in the trees.We scattered along the roadside and various false alarms came and went as Wrens and Yellow browed Warblers moved through the base of the trees. It was hopeless in the high wind and I sought cover in the lee of the wind on the other side of the bank of trees. I came across a small glade with stunted birch and stood there enjoying the sunshine and the break from the incessant buffeting wind. Suddenly the Arctic Warbler called tzick tzick tzick but I could not see it. Then it flew across the glade in front of me into some small birches and I could see it silhouetted as it fed low down. At last I had seen an Arctic Warbler but then a long period passed without any sign of it. The trees are so dense here that it is impossible to know where it is unless it calls. I wandered off while Paul remained at the glade. I got a call from Paul a little later telling me the warbler was still in the glade. He had just seen it! I returned and nothing was seen for a while and then it flew back across us and into some trees. Another long wait and eventually it showed up giving yet more brief views before disappearing into the dense cover.

Today was  also the day we were to fly to Fair Isle in the late afternoon. To do this we had to take a small seven seater plane from the tiny Tingwall Airport, literally three sheds and a runway. As it turned out we were the only three passengers as we joined the pilot in the tiny aircraft. He warned us that the strong wind would make flying 'interesting.' Soon we were airborne and Shetland went into a forty five degree angle as we did a banking turn and headed south down the length of Mainland. Everything was in clear sharp relief below us, houses, farms and then the windswept sea with Gannets shining white in the sun, criss-crossing the waves. The incessant buzzing of the engines went right through you. No insulated big jet comfort here but flying literally by the seat of your pants with just an inch of metal separating you from eternity. Half an hour later and Fair Isle loomed up out of the sun haze and we went into a steep banking right turn to land on the earth landing strip and taxi to a stop at the tiny shed that acts as a terminal.

Sheep Rock. Perhaps the most iconic geographical feature of Fair Isle. Sheep were
landed on the rock to graze up to 1977. They were lifted on and off boats by crane!

Gathering our bags from beneath the tiny airplane we were met by Theresa from the Observatory. We had only one thing on our mind. Syke's Warbler. This major rarity had been present on Fair Isle for at least the last four days and we were desperate to see it. 'Forget about checking in to the Observatory Theresa, just take us to the Sykes! Please'. Theresa had no problem with this and duly delivered us in the mini bus to Stackhoull Stores and a small patch of wild rose literally one metre high and about four metres square that masqueraded as 'a garden'. 

The Sykes Warbler garden c Paul Wren

We saw the Syke's Warbler almost immediately. An incredibly pale Acrocephalus, now re-classified Iduna warbler, with a long pointed bill, it was just disappearing into the roses but soon emerged to sit and preen in the sun on the wooden palings surrounding the rose bushes. It was only a few  metres away from us, untroubled by our presence. Incredible - especially after waiting and worrying on Mainland that it would not be here when we finally  arrived. It is unusual for such a bird to remain so long so we were really very lucky. I was struck by it's overall paleness. Greyish brown above, with the wings slightly warmer brown and the underparts almost white with a long, yellow orange lower mandible. It's very close proximity allowed me to note all the diagnostic features and even, with the aid of my photos, decide it was an adult based on the state of it's plumage.

Syke's Warbler

We watched until it moved further away, finally losing sight of it in the rough vegetation. We were not to know it at the time but this was the last anyone saw of it. Relaxed and smiling now,  we allowed Theresa to  deliver us back to the Observatory, show us to our rooms and give us a little introductory talk accompanied by homemade cake and tea. Very civilised. 

This almost new, custom built, large building has to be the Ritz of Bird Observatories.

The Fair Isle Bird Observatory

Huge en suite rooms were purpose built for birders with space for scopes and all the other paraphernalia that goes with modern day birding. A special boot room was downstairs where you leave all your wet clothing and muddy boots. Everyone just walks around the carpeted living area in their socks or slippers. The dining area was light and airy with well cooked meals catering for all tastes and persuasions and there was a well stocked bar and library. What more could you ask for? My room overlooked the famed 'Obs Garden' and from my window I soon managed to see the lone Tree Sparrow that had taken up residence with the House Sparrows.

The lone Tree Sparrow

That evening we just relaxed on the leather sofas and had a drink or two to celebrate our success with the Syke's Warbler and got to know some of our fellow guests. The Observatory overlooks what are called South Haven and North Haven, two beaches divided by a Causeway. South Haven is where the Good Shepherd is moored or should I say beached in a dry dock ready for its next trip to Mainland, weather permitting.  Most of the island consists of incredibly steep cliffs with fissures called Geos. The only other beach area lies at the southern end of the island.

Geos on the western side of the island. Many commoner migrants sheltered here
during the strong southeasterly winds and American warblers seem to favour these
places. The first Red eyed Vireo for Fair Isle was found on a similar geo in the north
of the island soon after we left the island

There are lighthouses at each end of the island called unsurprisingly the North and South Lights. 

The North Light

Most of the crofts and habitation are based at the southern end of the island and it is generally accepted that the best birding is to be had there. Apart from the birds there is a long and interesting history to the island and although not the place here to go into it in any great detail, two facts do stand out for me. The Island was bought in 1948 by George Waterston specifically for studying  bird migration and there is a memorial to him on the island. The planning for this was done by George whilst he was a prisoner of war from 1943 onwards. The other interesting fact is that the remains of a war time German Heinkel reconnaissance plane are still evident on the moor near to the Observatory, where the plane crashed after being attacked by British aircraft. The crew baled out and two were killed whilst the others were rescued. According to the locals the pilot visited the site of the crash after the war. He was only twenty when he crashed on the island.

Remains of the Heinkel

When we arrived on Fair Isle there was a strong southeasterly wind blowing and sunny conditions. The weather although auguring well, unfortunately was not good for bringing migrants in, especially rare ones, as the wind was too strong. The wind over the following days steadily increased in speed so that any migrants that did arrive, such as Robins, Blackcaps, Common Redstarts, Song Thrushes and Redwings sought shelter on the sheltered western geos, clinging to the almost vertical cliff sides and resting or feeding on any area of earth and grass that was available. The top of the island is just rough pasture and moorland, and  here Skylarks and Meadow Pipits predominated. Common Kestrels and Merlins prey on the small passerines whilst Hooded Crows and Ravens  scavenge in the fields and on the shore

Yellow browed Warbler just after processing in the ringing 
room. Dave Parnabythe current warden of Fair Isle Bird 
Observatory in the background

The southern end of Fair Isle

The Plantation Heligoland Trap. We found Redwings, Reed Buntings, Lesser
and Mealy Redpolls in this area. If you have a mind to you can accompany
the wardens as they inspect the traps in the early morning for captured migrants

For the first two days of our stay the weather remained sunny and windy but thereafter deteriorated into low cloud, rain and gale force winds. It was not pleasant and birding was tough in the adverse conditions. Basically it is a hard slog, you walk everywhere, wading through wet grassland and ditches, checking each and every wall and ditch for hidden migrants. There is no easy way, that is what you have to do, along with your fellow thirty or so birders scattered over the island. Occasionally the effort comes up with the jackpot of a rare bird such as a Fair Isle speciality, possibly a Lanceolated Warbler or if you are incredibly lucky an 'American' warbler. The warden and his two assistants go out every day and check the whole of the island and it is often they who discover the major rarities and then notify us. Do not misunderstand me it is still fun birding the island but it is hard work as you never know what will turn up or where and you have to just stick at it if you want results. 

One wet and dreary afternoon an Acrocephalus warbler was found lurking in some nettles and we all got the alert, piled into the bus and went out to join Will, one of the assistant wardens as he tried to identify it and trap it in a net. Despite heroic efforts he failed on both scores - it was either an ordinary Reed Warbler or Blyth's Reed Warbler but was never seen again

Birders awaiting trapping of the Acrocephalus warbler on a very 
wet afternoon

It was fun finding your own commoner migrants and a trip to the less popular north end of the island found us examining the overhangs of peat workings where small migrant passerines were sheltering from the constant strong wind. Here we found Common Redstarts, Robins, Blackcaps, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Redwings sheltering under the banks.

 Common Redstart near one of the overhanging banks that they 
use for shelter

We walked back to the Obs over the highest part of the northern end and Bonxies circled menacingly over us, up to twenty at one time and one even swooped at us although they had long since stopped breeding. We were left in no doubt that this was their space however. Magnificent, barrel bodied birds, you only appreciate their size as they come fast and low over you like dark brown winged torpedoes. 

Great Skua

We spent most of our time birding towards the southern end of the island where, purely coincidentally you understand, there was a handy hut to get out of the wind and rain with a constant supply of free tea although a donation was appreciated.

Yours truly with Vicky and tea!
c Paul Wren

The local shop was just next door for biscuits and other provisions and the Obs would supply a packed lunch if you fancied staying out all day, which we did on a couple of occasions. Wandering the fields we encountered Jack Snipe, rising silently and almost gently into the sky from under our feet and then pitching back down before too long, while their larger cousins, Common Snipe, in direct contrast, rocketed off 'scaaping' for all their worth into the far distance. A Short eared Owl was a pleasant surprise as was a ring tail Hen Harrier quartering the fields. Pink footed Geese and Barnacle Geese were beginning to arrive in small numbers as were Wigeon and Teal. Whinchats  clung to wire fences, Bramblings flew overhead and Northern Wheatears stood on the dry stone walls with the occasional Willow Warbler and Common ChiffChaff showing themselves in the bushes around various houses.

Whinchat c Paul Wren

 Brambling c Paul Wren

A Northern Wheatear. Very wet and bedraggled we found it drying 
out after a stormy night. It was very tired and we speculated that 
it probably made landfall last night

Also how could I fail to mention the ubiquitous Yellow browed Warblers which would appear in the most unlikely of places. One afternoon, tired of tramping through the sodden grass and wet ditches to be rewarded with nothing more than a Reed Bunting or two, I just leaned on a gate by a field of short grass near the local school, and let the birds, if any, come to me. The field held a flock of over sixty Golden Plover which had been present for our entire stay and included in them was a superb Dotterel which we had watched on several earlier occasions.

Golden Plover

The Dotterel associating with the Golden Plover flock

It was joined for just one day by a Ruff. Today, I again watched the Dotterel feeding happily with the Golden Plover and around twenty Dunlin. As I watched a lone Fieldfare arrived, 'chackering' in expectation as it landed on the field, possibly after a long sea crossing. A little later a Lapland Bunting flew over, calling, towards the school and appearing to land nearby. I followed it but failed to re-locate it but a tiny movement on the school fence alerted me to a small warbler. Yes, another Yellow browed Warbler, flycatching from the fence. I followed it as it worked its way along the fence before disappearing into some bushes.

Yellow browed Warbler

One morning before breakfast on a day of  rain and gales I walked across the Causeway between South and North Haven and up onto the Buness cliffs with the wind howling around me. Eiders bounced amongst the huge waves on the windswept, seaweed strewn North Haven. In direct contrast Grey Seals regarded me with curiosity from the calm, wind sheltered South Haven as I walked along the beach. A Snow Bunting flew before me along the stony upper reaches of the sandy beach while a lone Sanderling mingled with the Turnstones on the weedy slipway. Twite, House Sparrows and Starlings fed in any sheltered spot they could find.

Twite are widespread on Fair Isle and one of my favourite passerines

Up on top of Buness the wind tried and almost succeeded to blow me over. I made for a cleft in the rocks that would give me shelter from the wind and rain and let me overlook the heaving restless sea hundreds of feet below me. Surely in this wind something would be moving at sea? Countless Gannets were flying effortlessly in the wind but the main surprise was how many Fulmars were moving South. I estimated they were passing at the rate of forty a minute although this eventually tailed off  to a much lower number. In the space of two hours I counted around 1700 moving South with twenty two Bonxies amongst them. A magnificent spectacle watching their winged mastery over the mountainous seas.

On another day, walking in the south of the island, we encountered a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker clinging for all it's worth to the rotten, mossy fence posts, looking for sustenance. How on earth did it get here? Not a tree in sight but thankfully plenty of peanuts in the feeders, hung out at various cottages, to sustain it. I was told there were six on the island last autumn. Do they come from Scandinavia?

Great Spotted Woodpecker clinging to about the only suitable habitat available
This individual is of the northern race D.m.major

The severe weather of Thursday and Friday did create one huge problem. No one could get off the island due to the low cloud preventing any flights and the heavy seas deterring the launching of the Good Shepherd.

Good Shepherd in her dry dock on a calmer day! It is launched from here each
time she sails and is the main means of bringing supplies to the island. There
was much concern during our stay when weather delayed her sailing that the
food and especially alcohol would run out!

We reached Friday with no sign of the weather conditions improving. We were probably OK as we did not have to leave Fair Isle until Monday but others due to leave were re-booking flights to London at great expense and trying to ascertain when they could finally get off the island. Constant rescheduling went on but still no flights or sea crossings were possible.

Then came the biggest surprise of all and  the instigation of much anxiety and frantic activity. A Thick billed Warbler, only the fifth for Britain had been found at Geosetter on Mainland.  We were at the field by the school at the time the news broke and just stood in the rain despondent and incredulous. This or something equally rare was what we had been wanting and waiting for on Fair Isle. So near to us and yet so far, as no none could get off the island! We were inconsolable. Forget about the Fair Isle specialities of Lanceolated Warbler or Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler this topped them all and here we were stuck on a mist shrouded, sea battered rocky island with absolutely no prospect of getting off it. 

We decided that we must make some effort to cut our stay short on Fair Isle as the weather looked to be no good for anything in the immediate future. We were of course wrong. A Lanceolated Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo, the latter a first for Fair Isle, turned up a day and two days respectively after our early departure but that is the risk you take.

Friday dragged on with morose visitors hanging about the Obs waiting for news of flights or of the possible sailing of the Good Shepherd. Deadlines were set and then passed with no news. Finally came some good news. The weather would be good enough to allow The Good Shepherd to sail tomorrow morning, Saturday, and the ten people who needed to leave most urgently would go on the two hour sea crossing to Mainland. The bad news was there was no space for us but there was a slight possibility there might be space on a flight the next morning, if it came in. Susannah, the warden's wife was doing a fantastic job trying to re allocate people to get them off the island but those already delayed and with onward connections had to take priority over such as us who just wanted to twitch a rare bird. 

We all accepted that.

I approached Susannah tentatively and asked her if there was any chance myself, Paul and Vicky could get on the flight tomorrow morning. She sighed. 'It might prove difficult. I think it is full but I will call Direct Flight first thing tomorrow and ask'. At breakfast next morning she could not get through to them and my heart sank. It was not going to happen but soon after she came to me and said 'You have the last seat on the plane tomorrow morning'. 'But what about Paul and Vicky?' 'Good news. Direct Flight are sending two planes to get everyone off  and they will be following on the second plane which will arrive in Tingwall fifteen minutes after your one!' Further good news arrived at 8.30am when someone got internet reception and found out the Thick billed Warbler was still present at Geosetter.

Our mood rose dramatically on hearing the news. We raced to our rooms to pack and then had to book a taxi to meet us at Tingwall Airport and take us to Lerwick to collect a hire car to get us to the Thick billed Warbler, and be available for the rest of our stay on Mainland. Accommodation? We would just have to deal with that when we were back on Mainland. Let's just try and see the warbler. That is the priority. Vicky as always did an outstanding job of making the arrangements and everything went according to plan.

Tingwall Airport with birders arriving from Fair Isle. The plane 
can only accommodate seven passengers plus the pilot

At Lerwick we piled into the hire car and it was off to Geosetter without further ado. Apart from the early morning news that the warbler was still present at 8.30am no more news had come through. This was not a good sign as it indicated that although present it was elusive and not being seen. Pictures on the internet the night before had shown it to be frequenting a small field of oats surrounded by up to one hundred birders.

Parking was very difficult so we left the car someway off up the road and walked to the field to join a somewhat disconsolate group of around ninety birders. The warbler had been seen very briefly in flight on only two occasions in the last three hours. It was not going to be easy. We stood around for an hour. A couple of Blackcaps, a Yellow browed Warbler and a Common Chiffchaff flew out of the field on separate occasions.  Patience slowly evaporated amongst the throng. Someone played a tape of its song which briefly caused the warbler to fly but then the tape was ignored. Another birder walked around the edge of the field clapping his hands but this too did nothing to make it show itself.

Finally, at around lunchtime, a well known local birder, Hugh Harrop arrived, having obtained permission from the farmer for two people to walk through the field to flush the bird out. This resulted in success as the bird flew out of the field and into a ditch of willows bordering the field. I saw, very briefly, as it flew, a bird with rich brown upper parts and greyish white under parts and a long rounded tail. Reminiscent of a Nightingale. Sadly it's flushing precipitated and then degenerated into a free for all as birders losing all sense of proportion and reasonableness rushed forward to try and see the bird in the willows. This upset me so much I walked away. It was pandemonium. The impatient birders chased it through the willows and the warbler sought refuge back in the field. After much debate Hugh and his colleague said there would be one more flush and then that was it. So we all stood at one end of the field and waited. This time the bird, on being flushed, flew directly towards me and then veered across the edge of the field in front of me before diving onto the ground and scuttling into the cover of the oats. I again noted the long round tail and almost rufous upper parts with much paler under parts and the plain face with no markings, just a bold black eye and then it was gone.

Thick billed Warbler c Stuart Piner

Happy birders having seen the Thick billed Warbler which was frequenting
the Oat field on the left of the picture

I was elated to have seen it especially after our efforts to get off Fair Isle but frankly was glad to leave behind the birders and the chaos around the field. Not unsurprisingly the warbler had gone the next day.

At Hoswick, not so far away, there was another rarity in the form of an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler that was putting on a good show and was easier to see. Vicky had never seen one so off we went. A crowd of around thirty birders were clustered around a back fence and gate viewing a large, tree fringed garden by the seashore. Needless to say the warbler was not to be seen when  we arrived. It appeared that two photographers had earlier entered the garden to get closer and their selfish behaviour resulted in the warbler going into hiding. Fortunately they had left but it was still some time until the warbler re-appeared. Blackcaps, a Garden Warbler, Common ChiffChaffs and a Willow Warbler kept us on our toes until the focus of our attention finally put in an appearance.

Like the Syke's Warbler it was very pale both on the upper parts and especially the under parts, standing out distinctively against the dark green foliage. Most noticeable of all was it's long bill and the constant downward pumping of it's tail. A really good find. We watched it on and off for around a couple of hours and towards the end, when most birders had left, it came closer and became much more visible. This was the second example of this species to be recorded at Hoswick. The other was in mid August 2002.

Quite a day with our emotions running so high and now Paul suggested we go back to Geosetter to try and see more of the Thick billed Warbler. Our arrival happily coincided with that of Hugh Harrop who was going to do one more walk in the field. We lined up as before and this time the warbler flew three times, with the last view a grandstand fly past showing all too briefly all the salient features of this extreme vagrant. Then it was gone into the willows. We left it at that, satisfied with our views, and proceeded into Lerwick. We arranged accommodation for the next two nights at the Sumburgh Hotel and whilst parked I noted two Whooper Swans, the first of the autumn for me, on Clickimin Loch. We had an alfresco Haddock and Chips in Lerwick Harbour car park presided over by trawlers with a huge research vessel moored nearby and attended by Herring Gulls who got most of the chips. Winter plumaged Black Guillemots, so used to the comings and goings of the public that they show no fear, floated around in the harbour

Lerwick Harbour with replica Viking Longboat moored on the left

Black Guillemots in Lerwick Harbour

That night there was a free talk by the Shetland Bird Club in Lerwick Town Hall on rarities in Shetland over the various decades from 1960 onwards. It was both fascinating and hilarious with the well known Shetland birder speakers recounting with self deprecating humour their experiences through the various decades they covered. So many mouth watering experiences of wonderful birds with little in the way of optics to assist them. Two comments stand out for me. The tale of a Nutcracker in one speaker's Lerwick garden some forty years ago and another, when at the end of a committee meeting, the participants asked each other if they had anything interesting in their garden to which one replied  'Well I have a Hawk Owl'  It was true as we were shown the photo. Absolutely brilliant. There was also a huge spread of food and drink, all free, with donations welcome, and the large numbers of people present was gratifying,  especially so to see many visiting birders, who had come to twitch the Thick billed Warbler, attending the talk. In fact there were so many people we all had to move upstairs to a larger area to accommodate everyone. It really warmed the heart to receive such generous hospitality from the Shetland birders. After the talk we headed back to the Sumburgh Hotel. We passed the white Ferret again by the side of the same bit of road. At least it wasn't a white rabbit.

The next day was grey, showery and windy. Pretty grim if the truth were told. Undeterred we headed for Mid Yell where an Eastern Subalpine Warbler was residing in the garden of Charlie, who kindly was allowing birders into his garden to view the warbler. We drove north through bleak moorland to get the ferry to the island of Yell. There were a lot of cars waiting to board the ferry. It was going to be tight whether we would get on. The next one was not for an hour. Paul was pessimistic but I thought we had a chance. Just. As it turned out we were the last car to get on the ferry. The short crossing took no time and then we drove across more rainswept moorland for ten miles to Mid Yell. We found Charlie's house without any problem and he welcomed us into his garden to spend a happy hour watching the warbler feeding in a large Sycamore. A lovely looking bird with pastel grey upperparts and a pink breast set off with a white moustache, we watched entranced as it minutely examined every leaf from both above and below, picking off prey with it's delicate bill.

Eastern Subalpine Warbler

The wind blown leaves and strong gusts of wind and rain seemed to have little effect on it. We chatted to Charlie who was typical of all native Shetlanders in being so friendly and welcoming. He told us he estimated he had so far had over two hundred birders in his garden.

Sign in Charlie's window c Vicky Wren

I wandered down to the bottom of the garden to discover that among Charlie's other talents, were breeding Canaries and growing exotic looking flowers in a hot house. Finally we reluctantly had to bid farewell to both the warbler and Charlie in order to catch the returning ferry.

The plan was, that on reaching Mainland, we would go to Loch of Voe to try and get some better views of the still present Arctic Warbler. It had apparently been showing very well the day before but when we got there it was nowhere to be seen. Maybe the wind had something to do with it but we stood for ages without a sign. A few Blackcaps were in the small trees, as was a Wren, some Siskins flew out of the trees and a couple of Mealy Redpolls put in a brief appearance. Seven Whooper Swans flew high across the loch. Were these the same seven that had been reported passing over Fair Isle earlier in the day? We were alone until joined by two other birders. We spaced ourselves along the edge of the trees in order to try and intercept the warbler. One of the birders attracted our attention. We thought he had found the Arctic Warbler but in fact he had located a Red breasted Flycatcher which then went into it's usual will o' the wisp mode and disappeared for a long period before re-appearing and commenced flycatching in some small birches in front of us.

Red breasted Flycatcher c Paul Wren

It got more distant and theoretically was now out of range of my camera lens but I still attempted to take it's picture. At least I thought I did but on getting home found I had in fact taken a set of very blurry images of a distant Arctic Warbler as well as some sharper ones of a much closer Red breasted Flycatcher! A Yellow browed Warbler put on a good show in another birch before we decided to leave and return to The Sumburgh Hotel.

Yours truly in typical Shetland habitat looking in vain for a Short toed Lark
with Sumburgh Hotel in the distance on left of picture
c Paul Wren 
For the last couple of days regular reports had been coming in of a Short toed Lark being seen round the hotel and in a horse paddock at the end of the hotel drive. I made a number of visits but could never find it, only encountering Northern Wheatears and flocks of Twite. This evening was no different with no sign of anything except Skylarks. I resolved to try again the next morning before breakfast although it was raining steadily. Again nothing. I returned for breakfast and sitting with Paul and Vicky the pager announced that the Short toed Lark had been seen literally minutes ago in the horse paddock. I  raced up to my room, got my wet weather gear on and headed for the paddock. On arrival nothing. Just two Skylarks, a male Northern Wheatear and two very sodden Shetland ponies in the paddock. I waited for forty five minutes before going back and checking out of the hotel. We drove down to the paddock again and parked by it. Still no sign of a Short toed Lark, just a White Wagtail and a couple of Pied Wagtails. Then Paul noticed a lark in the extreme left corner of the paddock and there was a very wet and bedraggled Short toed Lark feeding in the rain. Finally my bad luck had been broken and I got some excellent views of it from the car.

Satisfied with this we went back for more of the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. Wet and windy weather meant it was not so showy this time and we only got brief views of it from time to time as it moved through the bushes. It seemed more vocal today calling it's tek tek tek call quite often which helped to locate it's whereabouts. Eventually it perched in a tree, sitting immobile for some minutes and Paul got it in his telescope. It really was very pale, almost grey and white and that long beak was very apparent. A northwestern type redpoll landed in the same tree picking at the branches but little else was around. We returned into the centre of Hoswick and to get out of the rain entered the Village Centre. We assumed it would be open but in fact this week was Wool Week in Shetland and the Centre had been hired by some lady wool weavers for a workshop and was closed to the public. Undeterred they warmly welcomed us in, asking about the rare bird everyone was coming to see and offered us tea, coffee and delicious cake in return for a small donation and we certainly learnt a lot about wool and how it is dyed and spun. It really was fascinating and again there was that lovely tradition of Shetland hospitality

Our last night was spent at a sumptious Bed and Breakfast called Da Lia with probably the most stunning views possible for such accommodation. We were virtually on the shore with seals loafing on the rocks and it would be quite possible to stay here and Otter watch or birdwatch from your bedroom window.

That then is the tale of our odyssey to the far north of Britain. Adventures, thrills and unscheduled changes all adding to the experience. Do it again? You bet.

Birds and Mammals seen on the trip

Common Kestrel/ Merlin/ Eurasian Sparrowhawk/ Hen Harrier/ Short eared Owl/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Kittiwake/ Fulmar Petrel/ Black Guillemot/ Guillemot/ Northern Gannet/ Great Skua/ Red throated Diver/ Great Cormorant/ Shag/ Whooper Swan/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Pink footed Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Red breasted Merganser/ Eider/ Mallard/ Eurasian Teal/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Gadwall/ Tufted Duck/  Grey Heron/ Lapwing/ Oystercatcher/ Eurasian Curlew/ Whimbrel/ Bar tailed Godwit/ Golden Plover/ Dotterel/ Common Redshank/ Ruff/ Common Snipe/ Jack Snipe/ Turnstone/ Purple Sandpiper/ Ringed Plover/ Dunlin/ Sanderling/ Woodpigeon/ Rock Dove/ Collared Dove/ Brown Shrike/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Eurasian Skylark/ Short toed Lark/ Rock Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Pechora Pipit/ Pied Wagtail/ White Wagtail/ Common Starling/ Blackbird/ Song Thrush/ Fieldfare/ Redwing/ Whinchat/ Common Redstart/ Northern Wheatear/ Robin/  Eastern Subalpine Warbler /Thick Billed Warbler/ Syke's Warbler/  Eastern Olivaceous Warbler/  Arctic Warbler/ Blackcap/ Garden Warbler/ Yellow browed Warbler/ Willow Warbler/ Common ChiffChaff/ Goldcrest/ / Red breasted Flycatcher/ Pied Flycatcher/ House Sparrow/ Tree Sparrow/ Chaffinch/ Brambling/ Linnet/ Twite/ Lesser Redpoll/ Mealy Redpoll/ Siskin/ Common Rosefinch/ Scottish Crossbill/ Reed Bunting/ Snow Bunting/  Lapland Bunting/ Little Bunting/ European Swallow/ House Martin/ Wren/ Goldcrest

Grey Seal
Common Seal
Harbour Porpoise
Ferret (presumably feral)

Fair Isle


  1. I hope Alan wasn't pulling the wool over your eyes.
    Sounds like you had a great time but I have to tell you the Badger big 40 was really special with lots of grub super company and surprisingly not a Cream Tea in sight.