Shetland and Fair Isle 2013

Chris Bradshaw
September 7th-14th

Our 2013 trip to Fair Isle experienced a few logistical issues at the beginning, but once these were resolved the birding proved to be highly rewarding. An unscheduled day birding on Shetland mainland was productive with a memorable encounter with a Western Bonelli's Warbler at Eastshore the highlight. Once on Fair Isle migrants were in fairly low numbers, but rarer species still showed up with Subalpine and Arctic Warblers seen nicely, Red-backed Shrike seen daily and several Common Rosefinches were also enjoyed. We were also fortunate to find a newly arrived American Golden Plover as it flew about calling and then when re-found by the warden, seen nicely on the ground. For those who like to spot celebrities, the trip proved surprisingly productive with film critic Mark Kermode spotted in Lerwick and actors Douglas Henshall and Bill Patterson staying at the observatory on Fair Isle whilst filming.

All in all this was a most rewarding trip, producing some great birds, providing an insight into the work of Fair Isle Bird Observatory and enjoying the magnificent Fair Isle scenery. My thanks to David and Susannah Parnaby and all the staff at FIBO for looking after us so well and being such welcoming hosts. I hope it is not too long before we are able to bring another group to this iconic location.

September 7th: Shetland Mainland.

To say that today was frustrating is a major understatement. We all met up at Tingwall Airport excitedly anticipating our flight onto Fair Isle and the birds that we hoped to encounter. On arrival the staff informed us that there may be some delays, but there seemed a reasonable chance that our flight would operate. However, as we sat and waited the fog rolled in and became thicker and thicker and our chances of getting away began to diminish. Around 1400 we could see some blue sky and see well into the distance, but the hills around remained stubbornly cloaked in cloud and mist. A foray into the surrounds of the airport was hardly exciting, but Greylag Goose, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Snipe, Raven, Hooded Crow and White Wagtail at least got the list underway. By 1500hrs the decision had been made that there was to be no flight, so vehicles had to be swiftly arranged and accommodation located for the next two nights. Eventually this was achieved, but with little time for anything in the way of serious birding we were resigned to an evening in Lerwick and hoping for better things tomorrow.

September 8th: Mainland Shetland - Sandwick, Pool of Virkie, Eastshore, Grutness, Loch of Spiggie, Geosetter.
Weather: Very warm and sunny (24C) becoming overcast and cooler with rain and fog during the afternoon.

Western Bonelli's Warbler

After yesterday's frustrations we hoped that a change in our luck was in order. With no flights to Fair Isle on a Sunday we spent the morning visiting a number of sites in southern mainland. First up was the Sandwick area where we enjoyed our first views of Twite, Black Guillemot and Shag. Meadow and Rock Pipits were seen in small numbers and Northern Wheatears were frequent. A Bonxie was seen very nicely at close range. We enjoyed nice views of Golden Plover as we searched hopefully for something more unusual without success, settling for Curlew, Lapwing and a few Snipe.The trees and bushes at Sand Lodge were quiet and with news breaking of a Western Bonelli's Warbler at Eastshore, I decided to head south. Pausing at the Pool of Virkie we enjoyed nice views of a selection of waders including Black and Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover and a distant Curlew Sandpiper. Working the gardens in very warm and sunny conditions, we located our first warbler of the day in the form of Willow and then arriving at Spindrift we joined the small gathering waiting for the Western Bonelli's and after a short wait enjoyed fine views of this delightful warbler. This was only the second (and last!) warbler species of the day, so remarkable, but 'very Shetland'. A visit to Quendale Bay revealed the presence of small numbers of Harbour Porpoise, whilst Guillemot was new. After a stop for lunch we visited Grutness, which was quiet, but yielded Red-breasted Merganser, Eider, Red-throated Diver and a Knot.

We began returning north dropping in at Loch Spiggie where wildfowl included Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Whooper and Mute Swans and good numbers of Greylag Geese. A concentration of ca15+ Bonxies was well received. Geosetter was our next stop as the rain and fog began to roll back in, but apart from a brief Merlin on arrival there was nothing to see. Returning to Lerwick in increasingly inclement weather we chose to call it a day, pleased with our day and hoping to reach Fair Isle tomorrow.


September 9th: Veensgarth, Travel to Fair Isle.
Weather: Cooler with N wind, largely cloudy skies with occasional sunny interval.

Red-backed Shrike

The day began with a look at Veensgarth, whilst we waited for our flight from Tingwall to Fair Isle. Here we saw one or two Willow Warblers, a Spotted Flycatcher and a couple of Siskins. Rooks were also new for the list, but it was not too long before we were at last on our way to Fair Isle. After a 25 minute flight we were on the island and soon settled in to the Observatory. After lunch we had a look for a Red-backed Shrike in the Obs garden, which proved a little elusive before eventually affording some nice views. A Garden Warbler was also present and we then headed down the island encountering plenty of Wheatears, good numbers of Bonxies, a Willow Warbler and another, more showy, Red-backed Shrike at Chalet.

Further down the road a couple more Willow Warblers and Garden Warbler were noted before a nice Whinchat popped up at Boini Mire. With time for the day running out we headed slowly back to the Obs in time for dinner with some of the group managing to finish the day with Common Rosefinch in the Obs garden.

September 10th: AM Trap Round & SE sector. PM To South Harbour.
Weather: Fresh W/NW winds, largely overcast with some brighter spells. Mild.

One of the nice things about Fair Isle is the opportunity to take part in the morning trap round. This morning was very quiet with just a single Twite trapped, but it was a great opportunity to see the work on the observatory at first hand. A flyover Lapland Bunting was somewhat disappointing in that it eluded most. The Obs garden hosted a Whitethroat and Garden Warbler with the Red-backed Shrike still present. After breakfast we headed out across Gilsetter, working our way along a ditch. Leading the line I flushed a bunting that went 'tic' on a couple of occasions as it flew away. Unfortunately the views were poor and we were unable to obtain further detail, but the most likely identification was clearly Little Bunting, although it was impossible to rule out rarer possibilities on the views we had. We pursued it, but after some searching we had drawn a blank and with no real idea where it had gone, decided to head on towards the cliffs and return to our main plan. The sheltered Geos were quiet and walking the damper fields wasn't producing much apart from wet feet and decent numbers of Snipe. At Kennaby we located the two Common Rosefinches, which showed nicely and nearby a Ruff and four Black-tailed Godwits were present. Whinchat was seen in the same area, but migrants were clearly thin on the ground. Near the shop we got news that a Little Bunting had been seen at Chalet, found only a little while after our 'ticking' bunting had flown off. Clearly the same bird and great that it had been tracked down and clinched, but frustrating that we hadn't been involved at the end. Moreover despite heading directly there, we saw no sign of it. The Red-backed Shrike was still in residence there however and the nearby field at Barkland hosted a few Golden Plovers, Dunlin and Ringed Plover.

After lunch we headed back towards the south, not adding a great deal, although Whitethroat and Willow Warbler were at the shop and down at South Harbour there were two Cormorant, a few Eider, Shag, Rock Pipits and the commoner waders of the island. On our return walk a Garden Warbler was near Setter, but it was in reality rather quiet, although there had been an arrival of celebrities at the Obs where actors Bill Patterson and Douglas Henshall were 'showing well' in the bar area!

September 11th: Mostly in the south & south-western part of Fair Isle.
Weather: Rain in the morning clearing to be overcast, with some further drizzle mid-afternoon.

The morning began overcast and rather wet. A walk onto Buness was quiet although Tree Sparrows were at the havens and a couple of Sanderling were on the beach. The Red-backed Shrike was at the Obs garden. After breakfast we headed down the island and concentrated on the south-western areas. En-route we stopped at the plantation where we had nice views of a Pied Flycatcher. The other Red-backed Shrike was not too far from Chalet again, but there was a general lack of migrants. Near Utra we saw Black-tailed Godwit and two Oystercatchers and all morning we had been encountering reasonable numbers of Snipe. News that the Subalpine Warbler was still at the shop, meant that we headed in that direction and although I glimpsed it, the group had to settle for a Willow Warbler and Garden Warbler.

After lunch we decided to have another crack at the Subalpine Warbler. It once again proved elusive, but a shout from a couple of other birders put us onto the area it was in and with a little patience we enjoyed some nice views of it. Pleased with this success we headed for Da Water where we saw at least 26 Snipe, but no sign of the Jack Snipe seen earlier in the day. Garden Warbler and Willow Warbler were at Chalet as we headed back pleased with our afternoon on what had been a fairly quiet day on the island.

September 12th: North Light, Mast to Obs. South Light and return. North Light.
Weather: Overcast with a light SW wind and rain by late morning. Afternoon brighter with fresher winds. Evening rain.

The morning began with the trap round which proved to be quiet, with just a couple of Meadow Pipits caught and ringed. After breakfast we headed north towards the North Light. Apart from the usual pipits, Bonxies and Wheatears there was little of note. A Snow Bunting flew over calling but was unseen. The views along the north coast were spectacular with large numbers of Gannets still on one of the outcrops. The weather began to close in as we headed up towards the mast and with a Lapland Bunting calling in the mist remaining unseen things were getting very frustrating.

After lunch we took advantage of an opportunity to take a lift south. The Haa produced Willow Warbler, Whitethroat and Whinchat, whilst down at the South Harbour a nice concentration of waders included two Knot and three Purple Sandpipers. Slowly heading back up the island the male Subalpine Warbler was again seen briefly. As we reached the school my attention was grabbed by a tri-syllabic call that I couldn't quite place. A wader was flying over and so I shouted for everyone to get onto it. We watched as it flew around in a wide circle calling and joining a group of Golden Plover. Clearly smaller and slimmer than the Golden Plovers, with grey underwings it was clear it was an American Golden Plover, but frustratingly it refused to land and headed towards Ward Hill. With time ticking towards dinner time we walked back towards the Obs, and as we arrived news came through that David had independently found the plover at the North Light. A quick journey in the Obs vehicle and we were soon watching it obtaining some nice scope views. A great way to round off another enjoyable day on Fair Isle.

September 13th: Mostly southern part of the island.
Weather: Light W wind with cloud and some brighter spells. Mild.

Arctic Warbler

Our last full day on Fair Isle and for those with a slightly superstitious nature the fact that it was Friday the 13th in the year 2013 may have been a little ominous. The morning trap round produced a new Whitethroat so perhaps there were some new birds in. The Red-backed Shrike was still at the Obs and after breakfast as we headed down the island we encountered a sprinkling of migrants that were new. A Reed Warbler was at Chalet, there were a few new Willow Warblers and Whinchats about and the usual Red-backed Shrike was now in the Da Water area. At the Haa we at last saw the Blackcap that had been in residence a wee while. News then came through of an Arctic Warbler not too far away, so a quick yomp and we were peering into some rather birdless looking willows. A Willow Warbler was not quite what we were after, and neither was the Common Rosefinch that flew over calling. However, after David had gone into the willows and ascertained the bird wasn't there, we were considering our next move when it popped up on a nearby fence and gave brief views before zipping off to Schoolton, where we enjoyed very nice views. Excellent!

Returning for lunch news of a Locustella in the garden began to filter through and with hopes of something exciting perhaps hitting the mist nets we lingered around the windows overlooking the Obs garden after lunch. Eventually, after a game of hide and seek with one of the wardening staff, the bird in question popped up onto the fence to reveal itself as a Grasshopper Warbler. Great views of a lovely bird, although perhaps not quite what we had been hoping for!

The rest of the afternoon passed fairly quietly with an enjoyable final tour of the southern crofts seeing a scattering of migrants that included the smart Subalpine Warbler at Midway. The weather was very pleasant as we returned to the Obs reflecting on some of the great birds we had been privileged to enjoy on the island.

September 14th: Fair Isle - Sumburgh - Manchester.
Weather: Bright and sunny with a fresh W breeze.

On our final morning we spent our time on Buness and around the Obs. The Red-backed Shrike was still around, making it onto to the list for each day of our stay on Fair Isle. A Whitethroat was the only other migrant around the Obs. On Buness things were quiet, although there was a leader-only Lapland Bunting flying over. Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Sanderling were around the Havens, whilst a juvenile Kittiwake was present. We had a slight hiccup with our flight off to Sumburgh, with a 45 minute delay, but fortunately we were off the island and into Sumburgh in good time to check in for our onward flights to Manchester via Aberdeen.

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