19/10/2005
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Foula 2005

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As our tiny plane took off from Tingwall airport and headed west over the Shetland mainland, I experienced the usual tingle of anticipation as I waited for the familiar bulk of Foula to come into view on the Atlantic horizon. My ambition to find and photograph rare birds in Shetland was first fuelled in 2002, when a Greenish Warbler that arrived on our research ship hopped off as we steamed south past the Out Skerries (see full cruise report). At the time I remember thinking, here was a place where anything really could turn up...

This was the third year I had made the long trek north from my home bordering the flat, temperate and relatively bird-filled expanse of Pennington Marshes in Hampshire (see my local patch sightings). In contrast Foula is a hilly island with hostile weather, and the presence or absence of migrants is usually totally dictated by the wind direction (dominantly westerly winds and few migrants!)

Foula: A view over the north coast of Foula (photo: Russell Wynn).

I chose Foula as it is isolated and has very little accommodation, which means plenty of scope for finding your own birds if conditions are in your favour. During my first visit in 2003, work commitments meant I had to visit early in the autumn (Aug 29th-Sept 16th), but I was still pleasantly surprised with a couple of nice finds including a Baird's Sandpiper and an Arctic Warbler, together with a selection of early season sub-rarities such as Common Rosefinch, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike.

In 2004, I was booked on for the 'perfect' dates (Sept 24th-Oct 11th) but had mixed fortunes. The first week saw myself and the rest of the team getting battered by gales from the northwest, although we did find a showy Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll as a reward. The start of the second week saw the winds briefly switch to the south-east, allowing three Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers and a Blyth's Reed Warbler to arrive. Nice to see of course, but the only bird that I could actually find myself in that magical two-day period was a Red-breasted Flycatcher! Then disaster struck as I was urgently called away down south (work again), two days before a Common Yellowthroat and a host of eastern rarities arrived! This year I was booked on from Sept 23rd-Oct 12th with no interruptions; what would the weather offer this time?

My answer came the minute I stepped off the plane, as a Force 6–7 southwest wind and some blustery showers gave me the traditional Foula welcome. Still, there were hundreds of Pink-footed Geese milling around, newly arrived from Iceland and Greenland. The next day (Sept 24th) was my first full day in the field, and I soon had opportunities to photograph a juvenile American Golden Plover that had been found the week previously by Tony Mainwood, the semi-resident Foula Ranger. Otherwise, it was rather quiet, with just four warblers found across the whole island (that's about one for every 2.5 hours in the field!)

Pink-footed Geese: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
American Golden Plover: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

Sept 25th saw the wind swing briefly to the SSE, and it was evidently enough to let in a few of the eager migrants from the east that had been blocked by the predominant westerly airflow. I started the day by finding an elusive Richard's Pipit that was not even close to being photographable, and was slightly underwhelming given that a few days earlier I had found one back home. I subsequently managed to pin down four Yellow-browed Warblers and a 'northwest' Common Redpoll in less-than-ideal conditions (strong winds and the kind of horizontal drizzly rain that renders optics useless) but knew that something better was around somewhere. I was proved right during the afternoon when Tony trapped a first-winter Little Bunting; this bird later showed extremely well providing me with some great photographic opportunities. Later on we heard that Roger Riddington had shuffled around Scatness with a broken toe and still found a Pechora Pipit, while North Ronaldsay also scored with a Pechora Pipit and Fair Isle held an Olive-backed Pipit. All three locations are visible from Foula! Unsurprisingly, the evening log was a bit of an anti-climax...

Little Bunting: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

The next three days were mostly very wet and very windy, with a westerly airflow hurling a series of Atlantic lows at the northern half of the UK. A scattering of northwest Common Redpolls and Lapland Buntings struggled in and just about kept the interest levels positive, but the photographic highlight was a Yellow-browed Warbler seen attempting to devour a Cranefly at dawn. It spent some time motionless as it digested its meal, allowing me to photograph it with a macro lens and flash!

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'Northwest' Common Redpoll: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Lapland Bunting: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Yellow-browed Warbler: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Yellow-browed Warbler: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

Sept 28th saw the rest of the 'southerners' crew arrive, with Kevin Shepherd and the twins, Neil and Paul Wright joining me at the B&B. The next morning saw us out and about in the first day of relatively benign weather, with winds dropping light and a remarkable absence of precipitation. As is often the case on Shetland, the improvement in the weather led to a rarity being found. We eased into the day with a Red-backed Shrike and then stepped up a gear with an American passerine, a Bobolink! Tony had alerted us to an unusual passerine, and we had subsequently glimpsed it and heard it calling in flight. Hopes were high that we were onto some big, and the adrenaline buzz as we first got onto the super-stripy, ultra-elusive little critter as it scuttled around in knee-high grass was priceless, with each of us carrying out a different task in our attempt to identify the bird. I was trying to photograph it with a digital SLR and a digiscoping outfit at the same time, one of the guys was calling out features as he watched it in the scope, another had it in the binos just in case it flew, and another was running a camcorder. It really was a team effort, and we soon managed to nail the identification beyond all doubt. Relief, smiles and handshakes all around!

Bobolink: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Bobolink: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

Sept 30th saw us come back down to earth with more wet and windy conditions, although a Common Rosefinch arrived and delighted everyone by showing brilliantly in the pouring rain. The first two days of October were slow, with the 2nd being a complete washout. Sea-watching from the B&B window! By this time the 'northerners' crew had begun to arrive, comprising Ken Shaw, Mark Wilkinson and Tim and Jon Drew. Both teams were in place and ready for action, but unfortunately the action never came!

Sea-watching from the B&B window! (photo: Russell Wynn).

Oct 3rd saw a small arrival of birds from the northwest, with good numbers of geese and a few dark Icelandic Redwings. The initial euphoria of the Bobolink was starting to wear off, however, and weary legs were contributing to waning enthusiasm. Fortunately, a high pressure becoming established over Scandinavia on Oct 4th offered some hope, and the next morning saw a significant arrival of northeast Redwings, but unfortunately not much else. The northerners found a Red-breasted Flycatcher that chattered away angrily as it posed for pictures, and the northwest Common Redpoll count had climbed to seven. Oh well we thought, it's all waiting for tomorrow.

Red-breasted Flycatcher: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

Tomorrow came (Oct 6th), bright with sunny spells, but the migrants somehow got left behind. The mark of a really slow day on Shetland is when people start sea-watching in good weather, and yes I spent most of the day watching the waves, but at least I scored with a Great Northern Diver and a late Arctic Skua. That evening we were all baffled by our lack of migrants, but everything became clear when we heard reports of a major fall of Yellow-browed Warblers and associated eastern goodies in eastern England. A quick look at the weather chart revealed that these birds were moving southwest through the centre of the high, and we were too far northwest from its core and caught in a stiff southerly airflow. I guess we had the wrong sort of perfect conditions...

The rest of the trip just quietly faded away in terms of rarity-hunting, and my mindset rapidly changed from one of optimism to one of acceptance; we had found our one good bird, and that was going to be it for this year. Both crews thrashing the island from Oct 7th–11th could find nothing better than a couple of Bluethroats, although admittedly one of these was a real show-off. Lying horizontally in a soaking wet iris bed I waited for this bird to work its way along the burn to where I was waiting, camera armed and ready. It popped up in front of me and I pressed the shutter but nothing happened; the bird was only 30cm away from my face and was too close to focus on! Even then it didn't baulk, but instead taunted me by casually flicking its way along the bank in front of my nose. I eventually got some reasonable shots from slightly further back (about three feet), and then spent an enjoyable couple of hours watching it pulling worms out of the peat. Maybe in my heavily soiled horizontal state it had just mistaken me for a particularly large worm!

Bluethroat: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Bluethroat: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

I seemed to spend a lot of my time lying in wet vegetation photographing confiding birds over those last few days. One sunny morning saw me trying to capture flight shots of a cracking male Long-tailed Duck, and also a Red-throated Diver and Black Guillemot in the harbour. These birds were unsettled by seals prodding them from below, providing me with a rare opportunity to photograph subjects flying towards the camera. In one shot, I managed to even get the rather sinister face of a seal popping up behind an indignant Red-throated Diver!

Black Guillemot: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Black Guillemot: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Black Guillemot: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Long-tailed Duck: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Long-tailed Duck: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Long-tailed Duck: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Long-tailed Duck: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Red-throated Diver: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
Red-throated Diver: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).

Oct 11th arrived surprisingly quickly, and a dodgy weather forecast saw us leave the island a day early to ensure we didn't miss our connecting flight back down south. We left the northerners behind, but their mood was sombre — not surprising given that they had also nearly completed their fortnight with just a Barred Warbler and a Red-breasted Flycatcher to show for their efforts (which probably totalled a couple of hundred man-hours in the field). Our own mood was one of relief and frustration; relief that we had at least found a Bobolink and avoided a blank, but frustration that during the whole two-and-a-half weeks we hadn't really experienced a decent east wind. During low periods, we had discussed the usual alternatives, like going to Scilly instead, maybe trying something more ambitious like the Faeroes or Iceland, or maybe just staying at home on the local patch. But we all knew that we'd be back.

So next time you see Shetland scoring on the pager, remember that there are plenty of lean times to endure as well. Days when you spend ten hours in the field in late September and see four warblers. Days when you find yourself clinging to a fencepost to stop yourself being blown into the Atlantic. Days when your binos get continually coated in sea spray, even though you're a mile inland! And days when you get gripped off by a mate finding a Dunnock!! Now you don't get that on Scilly...

Sunrise from Foula: Foula, Shetland (photo: Russell Wynn).
I would like to thank Tony and Helen Mainwood for their hospitality and assistance during this and previous visits. My companions in the field, Kevin Shepherd, Paul Wright and Neil Wright kept me optimistic throughout - no mean feat given the weather! Ken Shaw, Mark Wilkinson, Tim Drew and Jon Drew also provided extra 'bird-finding' support, as did Paul French, Tim Sykes and Katie Bliss. Marion Taylor at the B&B kept us entertained with all the island news, and ensured we never went hungry! Finally, we are all grateful to the Foula residents, the majority of whom allowed us unrestricted access to their crofts and surrounding land.
Written by: Russell Wynn