Gull Canyon and Musk-oxen

July 14, 2017

At our 8 am meeting today we were presented with three options for today’s excursions. Option 1 was a short ATV drive to look for musk-oxen, option 2 was a long ATV drive to the Northwest Passage, and option 3 was a trip in the Mercedes Unimog truck to Gull Canyon for a hike. It was an easy decision for us—we chose option 3.

After breakfast we put some extra clothing in our daypacks and joined the group outside by the truck. There was Luc and Linda from Quebec City, Terry and Karen from Pittsburgh, Eric from Squamish, Katie from London, and Elspeth and John from Boston. The truck, driven by Dave, took us across the river and the gravel flats and the airstrip to the hills nearby. It was a slow drive because of all the uneven terrain but after about half an hour we were at the start of the walk.

Hiking on the tundra

Hiking on the tundra

We started across the tundra, admiring all of the flowers, and very soon we passed a group of Long-tailed Jaegers. We must have been a bit close to their nests, so they were flying above us and squawking away. But they finally settled down once they deemed we were far enough away. Soon we reached the top of the hill, where there were a lot of Snow Buntings.

Long-tailed Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger

From here we had fantastic views down into the canyon, which was formed millions of years ago along a fault line. We could see massive sections of uplifting as well as greatly eroded columns of rock. After spending some time on the ridge we backtracked a bit and descended into the canyon, where Dave had driven the truck and set out the lunch. What a great lunch—squash soup, bread, chicken salad, cheeses and cold meats, topped off with fantastic chocolate chip cookies!

Gull Canyon with Unimog

Gull Canyon with Unimog

After lunch we walked up the canyon to explore. There were Thayer’s Gulls nesting on the canyon walls, along with a couple of Glaucous Gulls. Along the way were fossils of corals and other underwater creatures. Since we were wearing rubber boots we could walk in the water if we liked, and we did, but we were told that last week the water had been too deep for that. So because of the low water levels we could walk past the green mossy part with the gulls and into the more barren upper canyon.

Nesting gulls

Nesting gulls

(Walking up the rocky river bed was a good for the boots. You might think that rubber boots might slip while walking on sloping rocks, but ours didn’t. We were very impressed.)

Walking up the canyon

Walking up the canyon

Rocks with fossils

Rocks with fossils

Back at the truck, we watched a pair of Rough-legged Hawks for a short time and then drove back to camp. The plan when we arrived there was to head down to the bay to see the belugas. But Dave called Gretchen, the researcher who lives down by the bay, and she said that they had left because the ice had been blown in. But luckily for us, Richard, one of the owners, had gone for a run up the hill just behind the lodge and noticed a small herd of musk-oxen!

Bay with no belugas

Bay with no belugas

So naturally we hurriedly put our boots back on and headed up the hill with our guides. After a vigorous 15-minute walk we carefully looked over the crest of the hill to where the six musk-oxen were. They were still lying down, so we were able to regroup and figure out how to get closer. But while we were doing this the wind changed, so now the musk-oxen were on alert. When we tried to move closer, they all stood up and casually started to wander away.

Musk-oxen near the lodge

Musk-oxen near the lodge

Dave then suggested we should go downhill a bit to try to outflank them, so we did that. Only to see them down in the valley about a kilometer away, making good speed away from us! Oh well, at least we got a good view of them.

Walking back to the lodge

Walking back to the lodge

The Northwest Passage group had had a mechanical problem with one of their ATVs, so we ended up having dinner at 8:30 pm. Fortunately the kitchen staff had got enough advance notice, as we had another great meal—turbot, roast potatoes, and salad, followed by orange crème brulée. After dinner we sat and chatted with Terry and Karen before returning to our cabin.

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Waterfall walk and ATVs

July 13, 2017

Our bed had very warm blankets, so we had been quite warm (even too warm) last night. But outside, of course, it was still close to freezing. It was still cloudy like yesterday, but with fewer snow flurries. After breakfast we had a brief meeting to find out what activities were on offer. Today we divided into two groups; one group would hike to the waterfall in the morning and learn to drive ATVs in the afternoon, and the other would do the reverse. We opted for hiking first, so at 9 am our group of 12 headed out, led by guides Dave and Aven.

Arctic Avens

Arctic Avens

The tundra around the lodge area was fairly easy to walk on, consisting mainly of shale with some muddy spots. There were lots of wildflowers, including Purple Saxifrage, Arctic Poppy, Arctic Avens, Bladder Campion, and Draba. There was also musk-ox poop here and there, although we didn’t see any of the animals.

Arctic Poppies

Arctic Poppies

The waterfall route was fun; we passed several waterfalls of various heights, some of which we scrambled down the slope to view and others we viewed only from the top. Once when we scrambled down the slope we found a pair of Snow Buntings feeding three recently-fledged chicks! But because of the continuing cold temperatures, there wasn’t much water in the creek, and so the waterfalls were less showy than they could have been.

Climbing down the slope

Climbing down the slope

At the waterfall

At the waterfall

We were back at the lodge for lunch, which was soup, fresh bread, roast beef, and banana cake. But this isn’t what usually happens here—the standard procedure is all-day excursions with a picnic lunch, and that’s what we will be doing tomorrow.

Bladder Campion

Bladder Campion

After lunch we went out and learned to operate the ATVs, of which there were four different kinds. Some were much easier to use than others. Neither of us learned all four kinds, but we took a spin down the old airstrip in at least one. Once we were all done with the “training” phase we picked one to drive and off we went.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

Gentlemen, start your engines!

We picked a four-person ATV which looked like a golf cart on steroids and Paul drove that, with Rosemary and one of the Karens as passengers. However the route we took was not nearly as flat as the old airstrip; in fact it included creek crossings and steep slopes, so we kept falling behind the people with smaller and faster machines. It took a while to learn to just drive the machine at full throttle whenever possible.

Crossing from floe to floe

Crossing from floe to floe

On scary ice

On scary ice

We stopped at the edge of the bay where there was still ice, and there were belugas nearby. But walking on the ice was disconcerting, especially when we had to cross from one floe to another by stepping on completely transparent ice. We also stopped at a place where some Thule-period artifacts were stashed under a rock. It was interesting to think of people who lived there in weather colder than today’s, with only stone tools to hunt whales with.

Thule artifacts

Thule artifacts

On the way back the wind came up and started to blow snow flurries into our faces, so by the time we got back to the lodge we were all slightly damp. However our parkas kept us warm. Dinner was beef tenderloin with roast carrots and salad, followed by Raspberry Eton Mess. Another great meal!

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Arriving at Arctic Watch Lodge

July 12, 2017

Today was our second attempt to get to the lodge, but the weather forecast today was much more in our favour. We had breakfast at 7 am and checked out; our departure from the hotel was at 8:30 am with the flight leaving at 10 am. Sure enough everything went smoothly and we were in the air shortly after 10 am. This time we sat on the other side of the plane, so when we went over the gold mine about an hour into the journey we could look down and see it.

Cambridge Bay was a very brief stop, just long enough for us to use the washroom. Yesterday the airport had been empty, but today it was full of people all waiting for the Air North flight to take off. We sped on directly to the lodge, and when after just under two hours of flying we landed on the lodge’s dirt airstrip we all cheered!

Cambridge Bay’s baggage carousel

Cambridge Bay’s baggage carousel

The area was definitely a lunar landscape, with gravel and rocks everywhere, but if you looked closely the ground was scattered with flowers. After getting off we walked the tundra for a few minutes. The temperature was close to freezing and there were snow flurries, but we had our expedition parkas so it wasn’t too bad. The wind stung our cheeks and our hands (shouldn’t have left the gloves in our packs). Soon we arrived at the river, where some of the staff rowed us across in rubber boats.

The group waiting to depart

The group waiting to depart

The lodge is entirely made up of tents, with one large tent in the middle and two rows of sleeping tents beside it. We all met in the “great room” and were given hut shoes to put on, followed by tea and home-made macaroons. Here we met all the staff and we were told about the camp procedures.

Arctic Watch Lodge

Arctic Watch Lodge

We were now in the Central time zone, so we had to change our watches from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm. This seemed a bit arbitrary to us, since we were in an isolated location with 24 hours of daylight, but there was probably a good reason for it. We learned what time the daily meeting was (8 am), how to use the toilets (don’t let the water run), what to do if you wanted to go out for a walk (get a radio and bear spray from a staff member), and so on. And finally we were given our hut assignments; we were in the Canada Goose hut, which was on the outside row with an unobstructed view of the Cunningham River estuary.

Canada Goose hut

Canada Goose hut

We got ourselves settled in to our room and then had a quick look around the camp. Dinner was at 6:30 pm and it was really good, as it should be since the staff included not only a chef but also a sous-chef. There was roast chicken, potatoes, and salad followed by carrot cake for dessert. We all introduced ourselves one by one, but with 26 guests we still didn’t know most of the names.

Purple Saxifrage

Purple Saxifrage

After dinner we went for a walk, armed with the radio and bear spray. It was nice to stretch our legs and see the land. We were joined by Dave the dentist from Tucson and Karen the obstetric nurse from Florida, and after wandering around for a bit we settled on following the road down to the bay. We didn’t see any belugas but we had been told they had started to arrive. By the time we got back to the lodge it was 10:30 pm—it’s easy to stay up late when it doesn’t get dark. But the generator goes off at 11 pm and then there’s no more heat in the rooms, so that’s basically bedtime.

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On our way to Arctic Watch Lodge

July 11, 2017

Today we were scheduled to fly from Yellowknife to Arctic Watch Lodge, which is located on Somerset Island at 74° north latitude. Yesterday we had got our boots (on loan) and parkas for the trip; in today’s Yellowknife weather (28° C) we started overheating after about 30 seconds in the parkas, but we were expecting temperatures more like 2° C at the lodge. And today the plan was to have breakfast at 7 am and then to meet in the lounge of the hotel as 7:45 am, ready to depart.

But last night a note had been left on our door saying that the new departure time would be 10:45 am, due to weather conditions in Resolute. That meant we could sleep in to a more reasonable time and have a leisurely breakfast. The breakfast buffet at the hotel was quite good with choices of yogurt, eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, pancakes, and even porridge. And after breakfast we even had time to return to our room and watch a stage of the Tour de France on television.

At 10:45 am Katherine, the lodge’s Yellowknife agent, announced that there would be a further delay, until 12:45 pm. So we decided we would go out and get an early lunch. Katherine recommended the Birchwood Café, which was run by the local Dene and apparently had really good coffee. As we entered the café another patron recommended the London Fog tea, calling it “amazing”. It was made with vanilla Earl Grey tea, honey, and steamed milk; Rosemary tried it and was glad she did.

Back at the hotel we found out there was another delay, until 2 pm this time. It wasn’t looking too promising but at 2 pm it was announced that there was a small weather window, so we would leave immediately. So we all hurriedly jumped into the bus and headed to the airport with our driver Murray, only a ten-minute trip. However the idea of “leave immediately” turned into an hour of waiting at the Summit Air departure lounge.

Ready to leave Yellowknife

Ready to leave Yellowknife

But finally we were airborne in our Dash-8 and were on our way to Cambridge Bay, where the plane would refuel. We flew at 24000 feet over the grey-and-blue landscape of lakes speckling the Canadian Shield for a couple of hours before arriving there.

Radar installation at Cambridge Bay

Radar installation at Cambridge Bay

We all disembarked from the plane while they topped up the fuel and trooped into the terminal building. It wasn’t very big, not surprisingly, but it did have a stuffed musk-ox decorating the baggage carousel. We had a 20-minute wait, so we went outside to look for birds. There weren’t too many birds around but we did see a couple of Snow Buntings and several families of Cackling Geese with young. Or were they Canada Geese? When they were on land they looked like Canadas but when they went into the water they looked like Cackling again.

Mystery geese at Cambridge Bay airport

Mystery geese at Cambridge Bay airport

Back in the terminal the wait continued; it had been decided that the weather at the lodge was unsuitable for landing, so we would be heading back to Yellowknife. So they had to make a flight plan and do all the related paperwork, and after about an hour and a half we all got back on the plane. By the time we got back to Yellowknife it was 10 pm, so we had club sandwiches in the bar and then went to bed.

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Levenwick

June 5, 2017

When we arrived at Tingwall from Fair Isle, we took the taxi-bus to Lerwick and picked up our rental car—a red VW Up! rather than a blue one this time—and headed for The South, as the road signs call the area south of Lerwick. We had had two days cut out of our time here by being marooned on Fair Isle, so basically we needed to get as much done today as possible.

Shetland pony with foal at Jarlshof

Shetland pony with foal at Jarlshof

Soon we passed Sumburgh Airport, where we had started our trip three weeks ago, and headed for Jarlshof. It’s a major archeological site, where people have lived for the last 2700 years, and much of the area has been laid bare and exhibited. There were Bronze Age, brochs, Vikings, and on top of it all the ruins of the laird’s house.

Excavations at Jarlshof

Excavations at Jarlshof

Our visit to Jarlshof coincided with several busloads of cruise ship passengers, so it was a bit difficult to walk around. There were pathways and signs describing all of the excavations, and it wasn’t easy to understand all of the various stone buildings but to be fair, the archeologists haven’t sorted them all out either. But as with almost all the museums we have gone to in Shetland, it was well done.

Ruins at Jarlshof

Ruins at Jarlshof

After a cup of tea at the Sumburgh Hotel we drove up the hill to Sumburgh Head. There was a display there about the lighthouse and its history, including its role in the war. But we spent a lot of time watching the puffins nesting on the cliff tops, where they were easy to see and fun to watch. We also scanned the area for unusual migrant birds while having a cup of tea in the café, but there were only starlings. We had been lucky with the weather; it only rained for a short while and most of that was while we were inside.

Lighthouse complex at Sumburgh Head

Lighthouse complex at Sumburgh Head

It was still early in the afternoon so we made a side trip to Quendale to look at the historic water mill. We looked around the gift shop, which had some interesting items, but we didn’t really want to go through the mill. But there was a huge flock of about 30 ravens in a farm field and the nearby loch had a couple of Common Shelducks.

More puffins

More puffins

We found our way to Levenwick and then down the hill to Da Mucklehus, our B&B for the next two nights. Anne and Peter greeted us warmly and showed us around their lovely house. We were the only ones staying there, so we had the sitting room to ourselves. Our bedroom was very large with views out to the sea as well as inland. Anne had made dinner reservations for us at the Sumburgh Hotel for 7 pm, so at 6:30 pm we headed out. The clouds were quite low down on the hill above us, but luckily didn’t come down over the road. It was quite slow driving down the main road to Sumburgh as the road was being repaved and had a 20 mph speed limit in several sections.

The food and service at the hotel were very good; Rosemary had grilled lamb chops and Paul had salmon. We splurged and shared a sticky toffee pudding for dessert, which came with an excellent sauce.

June 6, 2017

We had breakfast at 8:30 am; Rosemary had French toast as well as fresh fruit with yogurt and muesli, and Paul had smoked haddock and scrambled eggs. The weather forecast wasn’t good, with light rain in the morning and heavy rain in the afternoon.

So we headed over to St Ninian’s Isle to go for our planned hike in the morning. The six-kilometer walk started out by crossing the tombolo which joins the island to the mainland; it’s famous for being the only sand tombolo in Shetland. The walk around the island was the usual coastal walk, water on the left and land on the right. Even the birdlife was the same, with no new birds for us, and we hardly saw any puffins. Most of the time there was a strong wind battering us but only the occasional rain shower. But we didn’t get blown over the cliff!

Tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle

Tombolo at St Ninian’s Isle

Back at the car we changed out of our rain gear and ate our apples for lunch. The rain started coming down in earnest now, so we headed to Lerwick to do some final shopping. First stop was the Textile Museum, which was highly recommended, but we thought it was not as good as some of the other museums we had seen. It seemed rather small and cramped.

St Ninian’s chapel ruins

St Ninian’s chapel ruins

By now it was raining hard, so we parked the car near the town centre and headed for the shops. We bought Stugeron at Boots, anti-sea-sickness pills for our upcoming New Zealand trip which aren’t available in Canada. We visited the Shetland Times bookshop to buy the complete works of local author Marsali Taylor, but her first book is out of print so we’ll have to look elsewhere for that. Next we visited the shop which sells soap made from goat’s milk; the soap had been recommended by our Norwegian acquaintance way back when we were first in Shetland.

Dunlins in the grass

Dunlins in the grass

Today there was an actual goat in the shop, but not the goat that gives the milk, that was his mother. But he was busy eating and paid no attention to us. We chatted with the owner for quite a while and soon it transpired that she was a personal friend of Marsali Taylor. So she messaged her to ask if she had any remaining copies of “Death on a Longship”! We’ll see if we get any reply.

She also recommended the Peerie Café, so we went there and had hot chocolate and cake. Last stop was Jamieson’s of Shetland to buy a sweater. The ones we looked at here were not hand-knit, but they were made in Shetland with Shetland yard and were considerably cheaper than the hand-knit sweaters we had seen on Fair Isle for £300. Finally we stopped at Tesco on the way out of town to buy Marmite and Colman’s mustard on the way out of town.

Back at the B&B we relaxed in the lounge and caught up with writing our journals, waiting in vain for rare birds to drop into the trees in the garden.

Tonight we had dinner reserved at the Spiggie Hotel, so we drove carefully through the mist and rain along the single-track road to the hotel. It was small and not very busy, but it was tidily furnished and well-supplied inside. There was a standard bar menu but we had the specials, which were lamb chops (Rosemary) and monkfish (Paul). They were very well cooked and presented.
On the way back we drove around Loch of Spiggie, which is an RSPB reserve, but the weather wasn’t very conducive to birding so we headed back to the B&B.

June 7, 2017

This morning at 2 am it was dumping down rain—it woke both of us up. But when we got up at 8 am the rain had stopped. We were supposed to have stayed at Da Mucklehus for four nights but because of the flight delays we’d only actually stayed there for two nights. So when we checked out and Peter cautiously asked if we wouldn’t mind paying for three nights, we didn’t mind at all. We just asked him to write up a receipt detailing that, so that we could make a claim on our trip disruption insurance.

The only thing we had scheduled this morning was driving to the airport to leave Shetland. But we had some extra time so on our way there we went over to Loch of Spiggie. Luckily we found a moorhen there to add to our Shetland list, making our trip total 79 species. Surprisingly there were a couple of swans hidden in the reeds as well.

We also stopped off at the Quendale Mill to buy a hot mat with Shetland ponies on it, something which we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Then finally we headed to the airport. Checking in went smoothly as did security, and the weather was perfect for flying so no delays were expected. And right on time our plane for Glasgow departed.

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Marooned on Fair Isle

June 3, 2017

Today was the day for us to leave Fair Isle. It’s been fun being here but it’s time to carry on and see more of Shetland. It was a beautiful day with sunshine, blue sky, and very little wind, so perfect for flying. So after breakfast we finished packing up and took our bags down to the lobby. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 10:30 am so there was no point in doing anything other than wait.

But then it was announced that the flight would likely not go as scheduled. The weather was good at Fair Isle and Tingwall, but one of the aviation rules for our airline was that there must be two escape plans for a route. For us that meant we also needed good weather in Kirkwall in the Orkneys, and apparently the weather there was bad. But they planned to put on special Sunday flights tomorrow, to bring people to Fair Isle who were delayed and take us off.

Fair Isle harbour

Fair Isle harbour

So basically we spent the whole morning waiting to find out if the flight would go. We did manage to go for a short walk to look at the puffins on the headland. That was a great experience, with several of the little guys sitting outside their burrows in the sun. In the harbour we met three Canadians, mother, father, and daughter, who were sailing from Scotland to the Baltic Sea. Their boat was registered in Vancouver but they actually lived in Fernie.

Puffin on the cliffs

Puffin on the cliffs

Finally at 12:15 pm we found out that today’s flights were definitely cancelled. So we were assigned a new room in the Obs for tonight; because the cancellation had been late the staff had already cleaned our old room and reassigned it. But the new room was identical to the old room, except that it overlooked the car park instead of the garden.

After lunch, well, we were here for the day so we headed out for a walk. So far the weather looked okay but it was definitely clouding over. It was rather quiet, with only a few skylarks singing and no oystercatchers for quite a while. Then we got down to Da Water and what did we see? Large, showy waders—Godwits! We walked very carefully closer to them and found they were Black-tailed Godwits, the commonest kind but still pretty unusual. And they were new for our list, anyway.

Black-tailed Godwits in flight

Black-tailed Godwits in flight

As we were admiring them, a kittiwake flew by and all four of them took off and flew south past the kirk. That was too bad. But we told Robin and his wife about them, and they re-found them, hanging out in a grassy area with the usual group of geese.

By now it was raining slightly, but we decided to stay out and hope the rain would stop. It actually wasn’t raining too hard yet but by the time we got halfway back, it was definitely raining. Arriving back at 5 pm we made some tea and sat in the lounge.

Dinner was at 6:30 pm and tonight we had Lancashire Hot-pot, which was perfect for a cold wet afternoon.

June 4, 2017

We woke up this morning to low-hanging clouds, so we weren’t too optimistic about the planes being able to land. Despite this we dutifully packed up and took our bags downstairs to the lobby. After breakfast we sat around waiting, but by 10 am we got the news: the fog was likely to stay, there would be no flights today, and we were rescheduled to tomorrow. So just in case we couldn’t fly tomorrow either, we asked to make tentative bookings for the ferry on Tuesday morning.

But we were here for the day, so off we went for a walk. We headed over to the Gully to see if we could find that Purple Sandpiper which had been reported in the Log, but after spending quite a while looking for it, we couldn’t find it. We headed down to Da Water, which didn’t yield much, but today was Sunday so there was Sunday Dinner and we didn’t want to miss that.

Da Water and the kirk

Da Water and the kirk

We were expecting roast beef and Yorkshire pudding but instead we got roast beef—Austrian style. That was good, too; it came with a horseradish sauce which wasn’t too strong along with roast potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Dessert was a delicious chocolate mousse.

Orchid flower

Orchid flower

By early afternoon the sun was shining, so off we went to the South Lighthouse, returning via the cliff tops. We missed the Icterine Warbler which was supposed to be around, and on the way back we didn’t see any new birds either. But the cliffs were spectacular, with narrow geos and tall stacks and eiders going “oo-oo” at each other.

Sea stack on west coast of Fair Isle

Sea stack on west coast of Fair Isle

Our evening meal was High Tea today, so there was cold meat, salads, bread, and cold salmon. A very nice choice of food and a nice follow-up to our noon meal.

At 8 pm there was a talk by Chris Dodd, one of the researchers at the Obs, about his experiences moving native New Zealand birds between nature reserves. That’s a very complicated process but New Zealanders seem to be very keen on bringing their native birds back from near-extinction. It was also interesting for us to see the scenery, especially since we recognized a lot of the locations involved in his projects.

And we were pleased that the Log tonight didn’t mention Purple Sandpiper in the Gully!

June 5, 2017

Today was the day we’d be leaving the island. Everybody was certain about it. So we were cautiously optimistic. We packed up and went down for breakfast. We were scheduled to go on the 9:30 am flight so after settling up our bill Susannah drove us and the two Norwegians up to the airport. Lo and behold, the plane did arrive! It was quickly unloaded and then we got on and flew to Tingwall. Easy as that.

We’re leaving the island!

We’re leaving the island!

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Fair Isle

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.

Our little rental car

Our little rental car

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.

Our Fair Isle transport

Our Fair Isle transport

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.

Flying past Lerwick

Flying past Lerwick

Fair Isle terminal building

Fair Isle terminal building

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.

Spotted Flycatcher from our bedroom window

Spotted Flycatcher from our bedroom window

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.

Fair Isle kirk

Fair Isle kirk

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.

Long-eared Owl roosting in the chapel garden

Long-eared Owl roosting in the chapel garden

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.

Siskin at feeder

Siskin at feeder

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.

The Obs and Fair Isle harbour

The Obs and Fair Isle harbour

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.

Fair Isle school

Fair Isle school

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.

South Lighthouse

South Lighthouse

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.

Wildflowers near the cliffs

Wildflowers near the cliffs

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.

Heligoland bird trap

Heligoland bird trap

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.

The Obs in the evening

The Obs in the evening

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.

Puffin taking off

Puffin taking off

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.

Kittiwake in flight

Kittiwake in flight

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.

Golf course by the lighthouse

Golf course by 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!

Red-backed Shrike

Red-backed Shrike

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.

Da Water and the kirk

Da Water and the kirk

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.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail

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.

Redpoll

Redpoll

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.

North Lighthouse

North Lighthouse

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!

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