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A Report from

Discovering Life on Fair Isle ~ 27th May - 3rd June 2001,

Christopher Hall

Our journey to Fair Isle felt like a foreign trip, involving as it did, several flights, with a stop-over each way on Shetland. Arriving at Sumburgh airport in the afternoon, we took a drive and stroll up to Sumburgh Head and the lighthouse. The head gave us our first taste of a seabird city, teeming with bird life from at least thirteen different species. The sights, sounds and smells are overwhelming. Once focused we took stock of ID differences, such as the chocolate brown of the thousands of Guillemots, compared with the black of the less numerous Razorbills. The grassy slopes gave us our first of many smart Wheatears and up at the light we had Rock Pipit and very good views of Twite, with their lovely pink rumps, so close they instantly became one of the trip's star birds.

The final leg to Fair Isle had to be done in two waves as the plane only carries seven passengers, in a cabin so small there is no aisle or standing room. One passenger can even sit beside the pilot in the cockpit. The pilot stands on the runway and leans in through the cockpit door for the pre-flight safety drill. The approach to Fair Isle is a dramatic affair as the plane hits the gravel airstrip through a blizzard of Arctic Terns, as the island's largest colony has chosen to nest beneath the flight path.

Hollie, the Bird Observatory Administrator and her new born baby girl greet us on the airstrip. We bundle the luggage into the observatory minibus and decide to walk the short mile north to the 'Obs'. With so many terns as well as Arctic and Great Skuas, dive bombing each other and passers by, it's a case of "mind your head" as you walk through this 'mine field'.

In the breeding season, Fair Isle is absolutely heaving with seabirds including the darling Puffins, voted most popular bird of the trip by many in our group. One of the best places to experience the seabird spectacular is from the cliff top at the north lighthouse, where a constant aerial procession of various seabirds, including majestic brilliant white Gannets, floats by just a few feet below. This is also one of the many places where we watched numerous seals sprawled out on rocks and also swimming through the clear blue water. A short way out to sea, Skroo Stack looks like a church tower with a white roof, plastered by nesting Gannets.

Thanks to its isolated location, Fair Isle has become famous for its rare visitors, especially in the croft gardens on the south of the island. Spring 2001 turned out to be the quietest for ten years, thanks to the prevailing westerly winds, but notable rarity sightings during our stay included, a female Bluethroat en route for Scandinavia, a nice Subalpine Warbler, overshot from the Mediterranean region, just as last year, and a Great Snipe, which even got a mention on the internet. Although markedly larger than Common Snipe, this great bird was reluctant to show itself, other than for fleeting glimpses in flight. We did very well for other waders with excellent views of Curlew and Whimbrel, Redshank, Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Lapwing, Ringed and Golden Plovers, Oystercatchers galore as well as many Common Snipe with their evocative aerial drumming displays. Sadly the male Common Rosefinch, present on our arrival from Sumburgh, quickly departed the island in the opposite direction and turned up next in our Sumburgh Hotel garden!

Whatever happens on Fair Isle, it never disappoints, with common migrants such as Spotted Flycatcher, Redwing, Cuckoo and a host of warblers like Garden and Willow, plus Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Whitethroat arriving daily. Some were even seen in the hand, thanks to the trapping and ringing programme, which continues at the observatory throughout the season. Even the Wrens are special with darker plumage and bigger feet, presumably to help them hang on to the cliffs in a gale! Wandering the island, we came across several Eiders sitting tight on their nests, superbly camouflaged amongst the heather, and admired the Black Guillemots out in the rocky bays called Geos.

Back on Shetland, strong winds prevented our planned boat trips to Noss and Mousa, so we dipped out on Storm Petrels. However the powerful weather ideally complimented the rugged and beautiful scenery on our walk around West Burra, where two small lochs each provided superb views of breeding pairs of Red-throated Divers. We also spent time at the ancient settlement of Jarlshof, literally in the back yard of our hotel, and finally at the Loch of Spiggie, a unique location as both Mute and Whooper Swans breed here. We were lucky enough to have both species side by side in the scopes, in addition to Cormorant, Greylag Goose and a party of Goldeneye.

By the end of our Fair Isle visit we had walked miles over most of this small island, and yet it had felt so relaxing, a great place to unwind, such is the magic of Fair Isle.

Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
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  • Scotland has my favourite birding in the whole of the UK. This book, now updated, contains more than 140 key sites and numerous additional sites accompanied by maps and line drawings. It concludes with an up-to-date list of local birds Recorders and reports, useful addresses and a code of conduct for birdwatchers. The guide has become indispensable for anyone birdwatching in Scotland.


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