May 30, 2017
We were (hopefully) flying to Fair Isle this morning, so after breakfast we cleaned out our food and packed our bags. We checked out of our room and then headed over to the airport at Tingwall, stopping along the way to top up the car’s tank. (No problem with the gas cap this time.) Bolt’s had told us to leave the car unlocked and put the keys above the visor when we left it at Tingwall airport, so that’s what we did.
We went into the little terminal building and took a seat; not long after that the lady from the office came in and announced that our flight was on “weather watch”. Basically this meant that the weather might prevent us from flying today. The weather at Tingwall was fine but the weather over Fair Isle wasn’t looking so good. In the meantime we sat and chatted to some other passengers and watched the small plane take off for a flight to Foula.
Shortly after 11 am we got the go-ahead, so our luggage was weighed, we paid for the flight, and then the six passengers and two crew members got into the plane. The flight took about half an hour and was totally smooth the whole way. We flew at a very low altitude, so we could even look down and see gannets below us. And we were surprised that the Fair Isle airstrip was a dirt strip—we’ve never landed on one of those before. Still, the landing was very smooth.
Susannah from the Bird Observatory was there to meet us, along with three other passengers. The drive to the “Obs” took about 10 minutes, so we were soon shown to our room. What a lovely place to stay! A large room with ensuite bathroom and shower as well as a good view. A key feature of the view was a scrubby bunch of half-dead trees, known as “the garden”, which would be a great place to find birds on the mostly treeless island. After settling in we went down to meet Susannah for a briefing about the Obs. We got a detailed map of the island and were shown where some of the birding hotspots were.
Lunch was at 1 pm in the main dining hall, pea soup followed by a slice of pizza with some salad. After lunch we donned our boots and wet-weather gear and headed out. Before long we caught up with a man and his grandson who were going to find a Long-eared Owl, so we decided to join up with them. It was in the garden just behind the chapel, they said.
So we walked down the road and looked behind the chapel—but there was no owl there, and not even a garden. But we’d heard about a Subalpine Warbler so we headed off to its reported location. Luckily we met up with another pair of birders who pointed out that we were at the kirk, not the chapel. We should have consulted our map! So we turned around and found the chapel, and just as described, there was the owl, roosting on a low fence in a small bushy garden. The bird didn’t look all that healthy so hopefully it would be able to get some food and survive.
Next stop was to find the Subalpine Warbler, but despite there being six of us now we didn’t find the bird. And since we were a bit damp we headed back to the Obs to have some tea and biscuits. We left our wet things in the boot room, which is an important rule there.
Dinner was at 6:30 pm: cottage pie with well-cooked cauliflower followed by strawberry pudding with cream. Meals at the Obs are a fixed menu, and you line up at the counter where the cook gives you your meal. We had no complaints about the size of the servings!
Every day the warden and his two assistants go out and census the birds, covering the whole island. At 9 pm everybody gets together and the warden does what is called “Log”, where they review their counts of what had been seen or banded today. Anybody who has found any other species are invited to chip in; as it happened we had seen a loon down in the bay as we started out, and nobody else had seen one today, so we got to chip in with that.
May 31, 2017
Today was an amazingly beautiful day. No clouds and almost no wind (although that’s not so good for bringing rare birds to Fair Isle). We had breakfast and then picked up our packed lunch and headed off for the day.
Today was a “cruise ship” day, meaning that this morning a small cruise ship had anchored off-shore, and about 120 passengers would be ferried in to the small harbour. There was definitely an advantage to the cruise ship’s arrival because it meant the local crafters would be setting up their wares at the Hall. Fair Isle’s knitwear is world-famous, so knitters would be present along with other artists. So that’s where we went first.
We had tea and a biscuit from the volunteers there before checking out the crafts. We bought a tea towel to support the local school (which has four students), and both of us bought toques as souvenirs of Fair Isle. But knitted sweaters with prices approaching £300 were out of our league.
From the hall we walked down the hill to Da Water to look for the Gadwall which was said to be there—but no Gadwall. Such is birding. We continued on down to the South Lighthouse, where we sat by the football field (out of the wind) to eat our lunch.
After lunch we consulted our hiking book and decided to walk back along the east side of the island. The first thing we came to was a little geo (cleft in the cliffs) with a flock of Eiders—and the Gadwall! Not only was it strange to see a Gadwall in salt water, but this male bird had an orange beak, whereas it should have been bluish-grey.
We climbed a few stiles and headed uphill; we had met a hiker earlier and were surprised to see him coming back down the hill. He had encountered an aggressive Great Skua, he said, and so he turned back. So we decided not to go that way, not wanting to disturb the birds. Instead we chose a different route up Malcolm’s Head.
Near the top we met James, who had flown from Tingwall with us yesterday, so we told him about the Gadwall. In return he told us about a Whinchat which was supposed to be at Da Water, and also about the Subalpine Warbler which was still being seen.
The views from the top were really spectacular so we spent a while up there before descending to join up with the road. The local shop was open so we stopped in and bought ice creams. Just the thing for a warm sunny day! From there we walked up to look for the “Subalp”, but still no luck. So our next stop was at Da Water.
There were two men trying to move two cows into a different field. The men had a dog and a quad bike and they chased the cows all over several fields until eventually they seemed to have them in the right place. As for the Whinchat, well, we didn’t find it.
Dinner tonight was potatoes with pork cassoulet, and dessert was apple crumble with custard sauce. Once done with that we got our boots on and headed down to the harbour and up onto the headland, where puffins were nesting. Most of the puffins were in the water below, but several were swooping past us and a few popped out of their burrows. It was great fun watching them.
At Log tonight the wardens had already heard about our Gadwall but we had to tell them about the two Dunnocks which had been outside our window this morning.
June 1, 2017
As predicted, our blue sky of yesterday was replaced with grey sky, but no rain. Before breakfast Rosemary looked out of our window and happened to see the Long-eared Owl roosting in the trees in the garden. What a surprise to see it! When we went downstairs and told people about it they were all trying to see it, which was actually quite easy once you knew where it was.
After breakfast we collected our packed lunches and got ready for the day. There was a report of a Quail, so we headed off hoping to find it. No luck for that bird—it’s one of the hardest birds in Britain to find because it hides so well. So we carried on and went looking for some of the other birds which had been reported.
The wind was pretty cold and soon we were cold too. And if there were any birds around then they were hiding in the bushes to keep out of the wind. So although we had our packed lunches we decided to go back to the Obs for the hot lunch. It was carrot and tattie soup with potatoes and cheese for the main course. Definitely much warmer than eating our sandwiches.
When we were finished we put on extra layers and our new Fair Isle toques and headed out again, this time walking all the way to the South lighthouse. We weren’t having much luck finding the reported birds, and there was a report of Red-backed Shrike near Da Water but we didn’t find that either. However we found the Barnacle Geese with a variety of other geese in a field not far from the lighthouse.
By now the wind had died down so the afternoon was quite pleasant. For most of the afternoon we had been with other people but now we split off and headed back towards the Obs on our own. We stopped to admire a very sharp-looking Wheatear and then both of us had alarm bells going off… Wheatears aren’t supposed to have pinkish breasts… this was the long-lost Red-backed Shrike! We found it! All on our own! Yay!
On the other road across the field we saw Sam and his granddad looking down at Da Water. They hadn’t seen the shrike yet so we waved at them, but they didn’t look our way. Later we found out that they were looking at the Whinchat which we hadn’t seen yet. Such is birding.
After watching the shrike until it finally flew over the hill and out of sight, we continued along the road back to the Obs. We had a brief diversion to look for a Sedge Warbler, which we didn’t find, and by the time we arrived back it was after 6 pm and dinner wasn’t very far off. Tonight we had salmon, new potatoes, and cauliflower, followed by fruit salad. The cook tonight was different than on the previous nights, and interestingly the food was better tonight.
After dinner the wardens went out to release a bird from one of their mist nets and came back to report that they had flushed a Quail from the garden. So several of us went out in the direction it had flown, but we didn’t find it.
We entered our sightings into eBird, including the Blackcap we saw from our window before dinner, and our Shetland list was up to 73 species. That’s not too bad!
June 2, 2017
There was some rain last night and so this morning was grey and gloomy, although the rain had stopped by the time we got up. The day wasn’t looking very good for the flights, so the people leaving were on hold waiting for flight updates.
We headed to the south to look for new birds, as we passed all of the now familiar birds: the bonxies, the Skylarks, the Meadow Pipits, the fulmars. When we got to Da Water we started to look for the Whinchat, which we still hadn’t seen. There were other birders there, two brothers, and they had seen a Yellow Wagtail. With some help and patience we were finally able to locate that bird.
While we were there the brothers got a text. “Rosefinch at the Haa”, it said. That meant there was a Common Rosefinch at the Auld Haa, which was just down the road. So we headed down to the Auld Haa—it had bird feeders outside, which was a good sign. Eventually a few House Sparrows showed up at the feeders, accompanied by a female Common Rosefinch. A dull-looking bird but at least its strange-looking beak helped to identify it.
We hadn’t ordered a packed lunch so we started our return journey to the Obs so that we got back by 1 pm. But we did have time to stop at Schoolton to sit on the bench overlooking their garden. We sat there for a while and did see several species of small birds, including a Redpoll, which was new for us.
From there we hurried back to arrive in time for lunch. People were still waiting for flights, but at least the news was more positive for them.
After lunch we decided to walk up to the North Lighthouse, mainly to see that area of the island. The weather had improved greatly since this morning, so it as a very pleasant walk. The North Lighthouse looks very similar to the South Lighthouse, though, since they were built at the same time by the same people. We didn’t see any new birds but we did see lots of puffins.
Back at the Obs we made some tea and had a leisurely rest of the afternoon. Eventually the scheduled flights did arrive and take off successfully, so hopefully the same thing happens tomorrow when we leave!
Next: Marooned on Fair Isle