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A Report from

Diary of a birder: Fair Isle - a magical island,

Mark Prestwood

After five years of visiting Fair Isle in September, the magic and excitement is still as great as ever as Steve Rock and myself board the Good Shepherd 1V at the southern tip of the Shetland mainland. The crossing takes about two and a half hours and is a bargain at f.2.00. We spend the journey on deck seawatching and see: Gannet, Fulmar, Shag, Great Skua, Sooty Shearwater, six Storm Petrels and all the common Auks.

As we land at North Haven, the warden meets the boat and transports us to the Bird Observatory. He also tells us that there is a Shorelark at Buness, so after a couple of beef burgers with onions and fruit salad with cream, we head of in search of a Fair Isle tick.  We found it quite easily, so we walked slowly to the 'plantation'. This is only 'lounge-sized with a Heligoland Trap over it. On the way, two Swift flew past, another Fair Isle tick, my list is now 154.

After tea, Paul, the warden, plays a Storm Petrel tape and we catch 15 before it starts to rain. Steve and myself release one each.

Breakfast is at 8.30am and after porridge, bacon egg and tomato, toast and marmalade; we set off for our first full day on Fair Isle. The wind is from the west so there were no rare birds but it did produce my third island tick of the trip in the form of a Curlew Sandpiper. Paul trapped this the following evening on one of his 'spotlighting trips'.

The second day also produces westerly winds and island ticks are the only things keeping us going and a Spotted Redshank becomes my fourth of the trip. Using his spotlight, Paul traps Little Stint, Redshank, Snipe, Knot, Turnstone, Wigeon and Teal.

The next day saw the wind move to the north-east and it produced Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and 'better' birds like Bluethroat and Common Rosefinch. After tea, which was Shepherd's Pie, carrots and green beans followed by apple pie and custard, a short seawatch from Buness produced two Sooty Shearwaters but not much else. Tonight's spotlighting produced another Little Stint, Dunlin, Snipe and Knot.

The 17th September is often a good rarity day on Fair Isle, but the winds had gone back round to the west and we had to make do with a Pintail, my fifth island tick. The wind dropped in the evening and Storm Petrel ringing was attempted. Quite a few birds were trapped and, under the guidance of the warden, I ringed and released two Storm Petrels, my first ringing tick! The numbers were 2507946 and 2507950. If you find them, please send them in!

Overnight the wind went to the southeast but nothing much was found until we returned for lunch. The van came past us flying a red flag, the sign of a good bird. This turned out to be a Great Snipe, my 5th on Fair Isle. The best bird of the afternoon was a Robin, my 80th trip tick. The only other thing of note was a Brick (a moth; about a month earlier than the first at Heysham). One Storm petrel was ringed this evening.

The initial assault on Ward Hill for Blackbird and Song Thrush failed but we managed the 217M after rest and lunch. The wind had now gone southwest so the only thing to do was another walk to the south and another look at the Great Snipe. I ringed another 11 Storm Petrels in the evening. A report of a Moorhen called for an early start accompanying the Gilsetter trap round.

7.00am, and no Moorhen. There were a few more Wheatears on the island and up to five Common Rosefinches at Skerryholm, but not much else. At tea, there was mention of a possible Isabelline Wheatear. This turned into a "definite", the first for Fair Isle.  A mad dash in the van to Malcolm's Head at the bottom of the island was called for and we watched the bird until dusk. Ringed three Storm Petrels again tonight and a Meadow Pipit brought my ringing list to two.

Packed lunch today with all day spent in the field. The Isabelline Wheatear was watched from 50 yards, four Common Rose6nches at Skerryholm, Barred Warbler trapped and ringed, Blackbird and Song Thrush finally seen in the Kirk area along with the Great Snipe. Before returning for tea, a Melodious Warbler was found near Busta. When we finally returned to the Obs, Paul produced my third ringing tick in the form of a Wheatear. The Moorhen was reported again from the ditches around Gilsetter, so after tea Steve and myself went and kicked it out - my 160th Fair Isle tick. Little Stint and Snipe were ringed this evening.

Sea mist and fog descended on the island today and with visibility so poor, Steve and myself helped Paul ring Starlings and one Skylark, then we visited Nick Riddifords house to see an Angle Shades moth!

23rd September was the great dove day on Fair Isle with Steve and myself spending a lot of time chasing single Collared and Stock Dove. After all the excitement, we spent the afternoon looking at Wilson's Filmy Fern, Oyster plant, something illegible (editor), Frog Orchid and Sneezewort. My Fair Isle plant list is growing.

After two days of SE winds, there were still no really good Fair Isle birds. Two Chaffinch and Merlin seen in the hand added to the trip list but not much else before lunch. Half way through my second chocolate cake a phone call had us dashing in the-Obs. van to Quoy for a Pechora Pipit. The bird was flighty and had disappeared by the time we arrived. Whilst 1ooking for it, first one and then two Rustic Buntings were found. When we returned to Quoy, we found that the pipit had come and gone again. I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and miss tea, as there was only two hours daylight left to find the bird. The Pechora Pipit first called, then dropped out of the sky right in front of me, turned its back and showed its braces as it walked away from the five of us left at Quoy. Paul returning in the van saved a one and a half mile jog back to the Obs. for tea. Paul also had another ringing tick in the form of a Common Rosefinch. Along with chicken casserole for tea, this was the end of a great day on Fair Isle.

An early start for most people, including Steve, who did not see the Pechora Pipit yesterday meant that I was up for the early trap round. Redwing and Fieldfare took my trip list to 100 and Redwing, Song Thrush and Blackcap took my ringing list to 11 species. The rest of the day was spent looking at the my 7th Pechora Pipit, two Rustic Bunting, Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-backed Shrike and Little Bunting. Things are just starting to get going as we are leaving.

On the last night, the balance of the accommodation cost is due. We paid f.25 per day in a dormitory, which also included breakfast, lunch, dinner and tea/cakes in the late evening. The log call is at 9.00pm. If you wish a twin room, this costs 35 per day and a single is 40 per day.

An early start today as we leave Fair Isle as we arrived on the Good Shepherd 1V, but we are not sad as we have already booked again for next year.

(This article first appeared in the Lancaster and District Birdwatching Society Newsletter, November 1998)

Recommended Books:

Where to Watch Birds in Scotland
Mike Madders: Buy from

  • 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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