28 Oct 2022

Blackburnian Warbler.

Blackburnian Warbler has been seen three times before in the UK but none had been twitchable!

009 Sep 12 to Sep 14
Western Isles
3 days
Hirta, St Kilda, probably first-winter male, 12th to 14th September, photo.
1988 Oct 7
1 day
Fair Isle, first-winter male, 7th October.
1961 Oct 5
1 day
Skomer, age and sex uncertain, 5th October.

Courtesy Rare Bird Alert website.

Its one of those mythical birds that everyone wants to see. Surely it wouldn't be long before there was a long staying bird. News of one being found on Bryher by John Judge the day we left Fair Isle left me resigned to missing this bird as initial photos showed it looking distinctly knackered and I didn't expect it to survive the night. Survive it did though and it showed well the day we were flying home to Manchester from Sumburgh via Aberdeen.

In between flights Stuart Brown messaged me saying he was going down Friday afternoon and staying in Hayle that night before getting the early helicopter from Penzance Saturday morning was I coming? Of course I was. Thankfully my gorgeous wife is very understanding. After being away over a week I was now disappearing again after a brief stop off home to shower, change and pack an overnight bag. She wasn't going to be home but wished me luck!

Cliff Smith was also going and I messaged him to see if he could get us on the taxi he'd organised from St Mary's Airport down to the quay where he'd also put our names down on the list for the fast boat, Falcon, across to Bryher. All this organised in the space of twenty minutes sat on the plane on the tarmac at Aberdeen Airport waiting for new passengers to board before continuing our flight to Manchester. Any thoughts of trying to get some sleep on the 90 minute flight were shattered when I found myself sat in the middle of a drunken hen party who'd obviously hit the bars hard at Aberdeen airport and continued the theme with plastic bottles filled with tequila.

Saying goodbye to Jase at his place, where I'd left my car, I headed home, unpacked, showered, changed and waited until Stuart picked me up. An uneventful journey to my old stomping ground of Hayle was enlivened by catching up and chatting about previous trips we'd taken together to see such gems as Cedar Waxwing (here), Wilsons Warbler (here) & Black-billed Cuckoo (here). 

We didn't expect any news from Bryher before we arrived at St Mary's airport but it was a nervous group that boarded the Falcon for the fast but wet trip to Bryher. On arrival we set off for the spot where the Blackburnian Warbler had been seen. I didn't get the message but apparently, whilst we were yomping along, news came through that there was no sign..........

I didn't know this until much later so I was still full of confidence when we arrived at its preferred stand of find it had just been seen! 

For the next three hours we watched this little American wood warbler as it moved round like a clockwork caricature feeding on insects it searched for beneath leaves and in cracks in the bark.

An incredible little bird and one I'd always wanted to see in the UK. The excitement of seeing it was tempered with the thought that it'll probably never get back to N America and will perish this side of the Atlantic as is the fate of most of these small storm driven vagrants.

With a Wilsons Snipe being seen back on St Marys being  'lifer' for Stu we headed back to catch up with this cryptic species before enjoying a pint at the Mermaid  and catching up with old friends! Its a few years since I've seen Paul & Vicky Wren and it was nice to catch up with them over another rare American wood warbler having seen Northern Parula on Tiree (see here) and Wilsons Warbler on Lewis (see here).

A great day and many thanks to Stu for inviting me to join him and to Cliff for helping sort out logisitcs. The journey home to Cheshire flew by as we animatedly discussed the days events.

There's an interesting side story about the naming of Blackburnian  Warbler as shown below:

The Blackburnian Warbler is one of our most striking warblers with its fiery orange throat and bold black plumage above. This warbler is named after either Anna Blackburne (1726-1793) or her brother, Ashton Blackburne (1730-1780). Anna was an English naturalist. She never visited the New World but did have a strong interest in the birds of the New World. She maintained a collection of North American birds in her natural history museum in Orford in the north of England. Ashton moved to North America and lived in Hempstead, New York. He collected birds in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey that he sent to his sister for her museum. Among the specimens Ashton collected was a Blackburnian Warbler. Thomas Pennant, a naturalist from Orford, saw the specimen in Anne’s collection and prepared the first scientific description of the species. He gave it the name of Blackburnian Warbler but it is not clear if Pennant named the warbler for Ashton or Anne.

Orford is a suburb of Warrington in Cheshire. The county where I currently live. Not only have I seen a new species for my K list but I've learnt something about a naturalist in my adopted home county! 

20 Oct 2022

Fair Isle - finally!

Since the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle tragically burnt down in March 2019 accommodation on the island for visiting birders has been at a premium. My last visit was in 2017. We were supposed to go in October 2018 but had to cancel as my dad died and his funeral was right in the middle of the time I should have been on the island.  Obs is getting rebuilt but progress has been slow due to escalating costs and the need to re-apply for planning plus the logistical nightmare of getting equipment, materials and people to the island. As I'm writing this it looks as if the first barge loaded with cranes and some of the build modules has arrived at North Haven so hopefully the rebuild will speed up. Not having the Obs has had a devastating impact on the islands economy - as well as providing employment it provided a place to meet socially for a drink in the bar and the island shop at Stackhoul benefited from both supplying the Obs and selling stuff to visiting birders.

Our trip to Fetlar had to be cancelled this year but we managed to get accommodation with Hollie and Deryk Shaw at Burkle. Hollie and Deryk used to run the old, old obs and were the first wardens of the old obs that subsequently burnt down. Consequently they're used to birders! 

Our flight from Tingwall was uneventful and we made good time before landing at the small Fair Isle airstrip.

The annual hill sheep round up was taking place when we arrived so we left our bags at the airport and walked down the road towards the plantation where we met acting warden Alex, assistant warden Georgia, ranger Holly and both our hosts, Deryk and Hollie busy with the sheep.

The weather was mixed during our six remaining days with some days being virtually unbirdable due to high winds  and driving rain. We soon got into a routine of breakfast and then heading our for the day with a packed lunch provided by Hollie. We'd be out all day and then return for our evening meal after having covered an average of 15 miles per day over rough ground in wellies and waterproofs! Hollies delicious home cooking was devoured with relish.

Our route would take in crofts in the south around Burkel before heading to Pund and then climbing to the top of Hill Dyke and following it down to Gillsetter and heading up to the site of the bird observatory rebuild and North Haven. 

We'd then head towards North Lighthouse and work the geos around Easter Loder before heading down Wivey Burn or up and over Ward Hill and down to the airfield before heading south again via  Filed Ditch and Rippack.

During our stay Redwing numbers increased dramatically and there was a constant stream of Greylag Geese flying over with a few Pinkfeet and Barnacal Geese. A few Whooper Swans also arrived a a small party stayed for a day on Da Water before departing and leaving a lone bird that didn't appear to be injured but didn't want to leave.

North haven held a moulting adult Great Northern Diver and we also found a partial summer plumaged Slavonian Grebe. This ast bird cuased a bit of consternation when we saw it from a distance as we weren't expecting to see a bird in this partial plumage! 

A flock of Snow Buntings were around the North Lighthouse and on once occasion we counted 42 birds. A beautiful site as they flew around the short grazed turf on the cliff tops.

Twice we had a flyover Lapland Bunting in this area but we couldn't locate it on the ground. Thanks to Jase's sharp eyes we did find a Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll. Stunning birds and certainly deserving the sobriquet 'snowball'.

It was amazing to see this bird flying around the geos feeding on the seed heads of thrift. Alex confirmed from phots that this was a different bird from the one that had been seen the week before we arrived so we'd found ourselves a BBRC rarity and will complete a rarities form on behalf of hte Obs.

 Later in the week we had two Redpolls flyover us at Hill Dyke which sounded like they were of north western origin and a few minutes later Steve Arlow had another Hornemann's at Pund. I refound this bird later whilst working the heligoland traps at Plantation and this proved to be the same bird as Steve found. It was very mobile and didn't stay long before flying off with Twite.

Fair Isle Wren - an endemic sub-species

Hornemann's - second bird.

Common migrants were few and far between with single figure counts of Chiffchaff, Blackcap, alba Wagtails, Wheatear and Whinchat.

White Wagtail

Scarcer migrants were also few and far between!  We'd seen Yellow-browed Warbler on Shetland mainland but the views of the ones that arrive on Fair Isle are generally much better - mainly due to the lack of trees! This individual was hanging around in a thistle patch at Pund.

A walk around Springfiled and Kenaby was rewarded one morning with a Bluethoat -  again a different bird that had been seen before our arrival and continuing our record of finding rare and scarce chats on our Shetand trips!  See here and here The croft owner invited us in for better views as it fed in his veggie patch enabling us to get point blank views and good photos.

1st winter Bluethroat

The arrival of Redwings later in the week included a few Song Thrushes, Fieldfares and Blackbirds and such an abundance of tired migrants kept the local Merlins well fed.

Earlier in our stay most of the Redwings were of the much darker Icelandic race and I ringed several of these during our stay thanks to Alex who let us drive the heligoland traps in the afternoons after they'd done their morning rounds.

Icelandic Redwing 'coburni' showing darker head pattern and undertail coverts.

For a more detailed comparison on a previous trip to Fair Isle see here.

Later the Scandinavian birds began to arrive in good numbers and these were much lighter plumaged birds with cleaner undertail coverts. Icelandic birds are slightly larger than the nominate ilacius sub species but this isn't very noticeable in the field - see below.

I also ringed a few other birds - including a Twite! A very rare bird in Cheshire. Fair Isle is the only place I've ringed this species. We also managed to ring a Brambling, Starling and a 'Scandinavian' Blackbird.



Ringing hut. With the absence of the Obs most ringing is done either here or from the back of a car

Shetland and Fair Isle Starlings are of the race 'zetlandicus' and are generally darker and longer billed than our local birds. They're one of the commonest birds on Fair Isle and the iridescent sheen of their plumage looks as if someone has poured oil over their wet plumage. Stunning birds! 

We had a great trip and it was over all to soon. We ended up with 71 species for the week.  No mega rarities but enough scarce birds and common migrants to keep us interested and enthusiastic to keep on going. The scenery is spectacular and hopefully the Obs will be open again ready for next autumn. 

Our accomodation at Burkel

We'd booked the latest flight possible off Fair Isle on Thursday afternoon as our flight from Sumburgh was early the next morning. It was almost dark by the time we arrived at Sumburgh so we checked into the hotel ready for our flight the next day.