31 Oct 2023

Fair Isle 2023. Part 7. Back on Shetland Mainland and an Orca encounter

We arrived back at Tingwall and picked up the hire car Star had left for us before heading to Lerwick to Tesco's for an essential 'meal deal' lunch. Our plan was to head norht to Lunna where a Veery had been found by friends visitng from Chehsire - well done Marion & Steve Jason has the distinction of being one of the very few people to see two Veery's in one day when he lived on Whalsay. One on Foula and later the same day another on his home island! I'd twitched on on Muck a few years ago - see here for the story behind that bird. Its a rare bird with only a handful of UK records so well worth a look! 

That plan went completely out the window when news popped up on the Shetland Cetaceans WhatsApp group that a group of Orca were heading down the east side of Shetland mainland about twenty minutes away. Despite visiting Shetland so many times I'd yet to see Orca so it really was a no-brainer to skip Lunna and head south to try and intercept them. This is another one of those encounters on my bucket list of wildlife sightings! 

We saw people watching from a layby so pulled over in time to see the Orca steaming away from us about 1 km out to sea. A quick glance at the map and the chase was on. Hobbling behind Jason we intercepted them several times from different headlands before making our way to Sumburgh Head in the hope we'd intercept them if they passed around the headland. On arrival we found a crowd of around 40 people already present and it wasn't long before the orca were picked up coming towards us. 

What an incredible experience. The Orca off Shetland are well documented and the pod we were watching were the 27's led by the massive bull, designated 34. He can be identified by a nick in the top rear of his dorsal fin. 

They swam right past us before surging around Sumburgh Head and headed towards the Ness of Burgi and Scatness allowing us to identify the other bull in the group - No.72  (Thanks Hugh! )

Bull No. 72

As the light faded we watched the pod hunt down an kill a Harbour Porpoise. The rest of the Porpoise were in full blown panic mode and stuck close to the sandy beach on our side of the bay in the hope that the Orca couldn't chase them in the shallows. They were moving up and down in front of us unable to escape the bay whilst the orca were patrolling it. With tail slaps and full on breaches the Orca put on a spectacular show and  I was still buzzing from the encounter when we arrived at the Sumburgh Hotel. After celebrating with a couple of beers I was soon sound asleep.

See here for more information on the identification of Orca in Scottish waters.

26 Oct 2023

Fair Isle 2023. Part 6. American Golden Plover and a disaster.

Nearly 30 years ago I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing rugby. I remember exactly when I did it. My foot was planted in mud and I got hit from the side twisting my knee and tearing the ligament. It didn't require surgery but I spent 8 weeks hobbling around with a stick. Just over a year ago I tweaked it again but after a week or so it improved to the extent I was back in the gym doing squats and leg raises. 

Unfortunately I slipped whilst climbing over a stile on Fair Isle and was in instant agony. Walking was difficult and  I was in constant pain as the knee occasionally gave way on me and bone rubbed against bone. Not the best time for the American Golden Plover found by Sam to appear to have settled at possibly one of the highest and most exposed are of Fair Isle - Hoini! 

Despite the discomfort I managed to follow Jason uphill, albeit almost a 100 m behind him at the top, where we sat and watched a juvenile American Plover feeding on the open plateau. We'd seen this bird in flight previously and picked it up flying around on call several times but this was the first time we'd seen it on the ground. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated so after 20 minutes or so we left it and sought shelter lower down.

Whilst we were on Fair Isle we took the opportunity to check on progress on the rebuilding of the Observatory that burnt down in a disastrous fire in March 2019. The reconstruction has been plagued by delays and the Obs is almost 2 years late reopening. Progress is slow but the shell is almost water tight and hopefully will be open for guests next Autumn.

The scenery and geology on Fair Isle is fantastic and on sunny days is probably as good as you could get anywhere in the World. Its a magical place.

View from my room at Hollie & Deryks place Burkle

North Light

South Harbour

Cruise ship at North haven

All to soon our week had come to an end and it was time to retunr to Tingwall where we received the welcome news that Airtask were going to refund our flights both ways due to the mechanical break down of the plane! 

21 Oct 2023

Fair Isle 2023. Part 5. Little Bunting and geese.

Little Bunting is one of those birds that a Shetland autumn turns up on a regular basis. Indeed they could almost be classed as a scarce passage migrant on the northern isles. There had been several knocking around Fair Isle whilst we were there but they'd proved elusive and didn't stick around. Jason & I were walking down Hill Dyke when news came out that one was showing well at Chalet. We could see Brendan & Greg watching it from our lofty position so cut down through Pund and joined them. After all who doesn't love a Little Bunting! 

As well as the Little Bunting the garden at Chalet also produced a Bluethroat and several Common Rosefinches during the week.

Geese are feature of autumns on Fair Isle and with a change in the wind direction came hundreds of Barnacle Geese and  Pinkfeet to join the Greylags already present. The small group of Pinkfooted Geese that took up temporary residence were joined by a Tundra Bean allowing a good comparison between the two species.


Tundra Bean

Common migrants were trickling in and most days we saw something new. Several Tree Pipits were seen at different locations along with Whinchats & Wheatears.

Another good bird was found by Deryk in a geo using his thermal imager  - Fair Isles 12th Treecreeper! And a race tick forr me as it was the northern race. It was quite surreal watching a Treecreeper clambering up vertical rock faces like a Wallcreeper! 

Another great day with 11 miles covered over rough terrain wearing wellies and carrying a rucksack. Thankfully Hollie fed us well so we had the energy to carry on each day.

18 Oct 2023

Fair Isle 2023. Part 4. The day of the Raddes Warbler.

As was my usual routine, during our stay at Burkle, I was up before it was light and sat having a brew in the dining room watching the sun rise and the darkness slowly disappear as another day dawned on Fair Isle. By now Brendan had joined us and the three of us sat having breakfast discussing what the day may bring before collecting our packed lunches and heading out for the day. 

As usual our route meant checking all the available habitat  - gardens, ditches, nettle beds,  derelict buildings & geos! 

We'd just got to the top of Bulls Park with only a Snow Bunting to add to the trip list when news came out the Sam had found a Raddes Warbler near the cru adjacent to the ringing hut  - very close to where the Lanceolated Warbler was found! Apparently it was showing well! 

I hadn't seen a Radde's Warbler for a few years and was keen to get good views so headed off downhill just in time to see it fly into a patch of long grass and promptly disappear! With the arrival of Brendan & Deryk we split up looking for it and I eventually found it happily feeding beneath a trailer parked on the drive at Setter! With complete disdain for its admirers it walked out from beneath the trailer into a pile of pallets where we watched it on and off for the best part of an hour. 

With heavy rain starting to fall we left the bird feeding whilst we sought cover. Another great Fair Isle expereicne and by fsr my best ever views of Raddes Warbler! 

15 Oct 2023

Fair Isle 2023. Part 3. Another Lanceolated Warbler.

Lanceolated Warbler is a vagrant from Siberia and is a Fair Isle / Shetland speciality. Its one of those group of 'sibes' that everyone wants to see on the archipelago. They're a diminutive locustella with a habit of running mouse like rather than flying. Its a bird I'd always wanted to see and. luckily in 2014 we found one at Quendale on Shetland mainland. See here & here for that story! 

I'd heard the stories of them running along the dykes on Fair Isle and seeing one do this was high on my avian bucket list. Jase and I had breakfasted early as usual and headed out with a packed lunch. As usual we checked al the crofts / gardens and were heading north. A showy juvenile Barred Warbler at Stackhoull stores and a a ringed Lesser Whitethroat at Quoy were new additions to the trip list but we had the feeling that something better would turn up.

We'd just sat down for our lunch outside Stackhoull when sure enough a message pinged up on the local WhatsApp group that AW Georgia had found a Lanceolated Warbler in the ringing hut marsh. The bird was unringed and a different bird to the one at Quoy. Heading north we arrived 20 minutes later to find Georgia, Alex and Glen peering intently into the marsh. The bird had disappeared but when Deryk arrived with his thermal imager it was soon picked up running through the vegetation. It headed towards the dyke where it posed briefly before disappearing into the wall.

The next couple of hours were some of the best I'd spent birding on Fair Isle as the Lanceolated put on the show I'd always wanted to see. Running along the short turf, like a mini velociraptor, it hunted down Craneflies completely unconcerned by our presence and at one stage ran right past me.

@Alex Penn. One happy Wirral Birder as the Lancie (circled) ran towards him. 

What a fantastic experience. I literally took hundreds of photos! 

The decision was made to try and trap the Lanceolated Warbler and ring it so ranger Lucy was sent off to collect a mist net. Catching it meant simply dripping a mist net over the top of it and it was soon in  bird bag awaiting ringing processing by Georgia.

It was aged as a calendar year bird (Euring 3) and a few days after it was released it was found by Brendan in the garden of nearby Setter. The day it was found it mush have literally just dropped in! This was my 3rd Lanceolated Warbler in the UK and by far the most satisfying experience.