It's ‘Just Not Fair’ Isle!


BirdGuides' review of last year's birding highlights has prompted me to recall a fortuitous visit to Fair Isle in late September/October 2012. I worked on a farm on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, for five years, but I took a six-month sabbatical from work in 2012 that saw me in the High Arctic in June, the jungles of southeast Asia from July to early September, and then jamming in on what even long-term visitors to Fair Isle were calling 'possibly the best three-week period ever' in that island's long and illustrious history. I might get round to writing about my summer travels in a later article, but for now...

Saturday 22nd September 2012, 3 o'clock in the morning: I peeped outside my tent for a moment by the Pool of Virkie, Shetland, to marvel at the astonishing stillness and clarity of the night air surrounding me. A waxing crescent moon could do little to subtract from the brightness of the millions of pinprick stars that clustered in countless union, a breathtaking natural satellite navigation for the thousands of avian migrants that would almost certainly be crossing these skies tonight. I had recently returned from a three-month trip across the humid, saturated lowlands of southeast Asia, and the crisp, cool air that would lead to an unseasonably early frost in the morning was a tonic to my lungs. After three weeks of solid westerly winds (so I gathered), the breeze was as yet an almost imperceptible light northerly, a 36-hour pause in what the forecasters told us would soon turn into a 180° switch to three days of potentially exciting, rarity-delivering east-southeasterlies. This morning I would travel to Fair Isle for a week's stay. It was to be my first visit to the Hallowed Isle since a two-hour twitch for a Song Sparrow in April 1989, and the first time I had stayed there in 26 years following what I'd thought was a once-in-a-lifetime visit as an 18-year student in September 1986.

That I was even here at all was something of a last-minute surprise; an email while on my summer travels had told me of the defection of three of my long-term birding mates from a plan hatched twelve months ago by Bristol-based birder Paul Cook, during a two-month spell as Assistant Chef to the Fair Isle Bird Observatory the previous autumn. As I was not due back on Scilly for work until mid-November, I'd been happy to fill in. Paul had travelled with me on the NorthLink ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick the previous evening, but had already flown on to Fair Isle on the Friday morning. Too late in booking, I'd had to settle for the Good Shepherd.

In the event, a minimum of 80 Yellow-browed Warblers were to fall on Shetland that windless, sunny morning, 15 of them on Fair Isle, and two marvellously bright little ones in the garden at Grutness Pier that certainly hadn't been there the previous day. An Arctic Warbler had already turned up on the Friday afternoon at my intended destination, adding to what was already a delicious taste of anticipatory relish.

Then Paul rang me to say he'd just discovered a Blyth's Reed Warbler in one of the gardens next to our holiday cottage at the south end of the island and the pleasurable excitement became tinged with the first pangs of urgency. The departure of the Good Shepherd was delayed by an hour due to extra cargo having to be loaded and unloaded, turning what had begun as a gentle, unhurried wait in glorious sunshine into a controlled pacing up and down the quay. The sound, followed quickly by the sight, of a Citrine Wagtail flying overhead took some of the sting out of the delay.

Blyth's Reed Warbler
Blyth's Reed Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Steve Arlow)

The crossing of one of the most notoriously bumpy stretches of sea in the British Isles was accomplished with barely a ripple. I landed on Fair Isle just after three in the afternoon and was quickly whisked down to our holiday cottage by its owner, Bill Murray. Equally briskly, Paul took me straight out to see the Blyth's Reed. Initially I'd hoped to see both it and the Arctic Warbler the same evening, ready to start my first full day with a clean slate, but the Blyth's proved so entertaining and so co-operative that I settled down with it and gave it an extra half-hour of my time. A Barred Warbler in the same trees added to the occasion. Next morning the Arctic Warbler fell easily in the first hour anyway, and provided the first of many of what Paul was to call 'iconic Fair Isle moments', sitting on a barbed-wire fence at the side of the road, clinging on for dear life in the face of a gathering easterly wind.

Arctic Warbler
Arctic Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Steve Arlow)

Less than 24 hours after arriving on the island, my first British Lanceolated Warbler was in the bag, quite literally. Paul and I got a call too late to see anything other than a crowd of thirty pushing the bird into a single panel net. I had a quick look at it in the hand, then moved on. There were still a dozen or more Yellow-broweds on the island, and the promise of finding one's own birds lay heavily in the air. At the Setter potato crop, we'd just pushed a couple of Yellow-broweds along the field when the Fair Isle Obs van appeared on the horizon waving its famous red flag to alert birders to the presence of another rarity on the islands. I have this memory of being knee-deep in birds in the crop when the warden, Dave Parnaby, pulled up to announce 'American warbler on the West Cliffs'. My reaction was one of curiosity rather than excitement: this sounded unlikely in view of the easterly winds, but when Dave described the sighting as we were hustled into the van with ten others, I became aware that this was serious. The description of 'a bright yellow bird with a greenish back, grey head, and white patches in the tail' pointed to only one thing in my mind, but it couldn't be real, could it? One gets this sort of report once or twice an autumn in the 'Scilly Season', and quite frequently it never amounts to much. But this was Fair Isle, and I hadn't yet discovered at this stage just what super-hot birders the wardening team were, and as it had been one of Dave's assistants, Jason Moss, who'd discovered the bird on his evening census anticipation mounted.

Lanceolated Warbler
Lanceolated Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Rebecca Nason)

It was now 5:30 and we only had an hour and a half's good light left. The van could only take us up to the airstrip and then it was a long, sweaty yomp across the moors, up the steep incline at the base of Ward Hill. None of the leading group actually knew where we heading exactly, as this was a little-visited site. Fortunately, Deryk Shaw, himself a Warden of twelve years on the island, seemed to know exactly where he was heading, and he very quickly overtook us and led us in the right direction. I asked Paul to attempt communication with Jason by phone for an update on the situation but the signal was unavailable. Twenty minutes or so later, we got there, and saw Jason standing confidently at the cliff edge apparently oblivious to the precipitous 200ft drop below him. Suppressing a gulp, I sidled up to the half-dozen people who'd got there before me, only to arrive just as the bird flicked around a corner. Fortunately for my anxious state of mind, Deryk quickly relocated it around the corner, on a far, far safer viewing platform than the one we'd arrived at.

Jason Moss — finder of the Magnolia Warbler — and others gather for a view of the bird (Tommy Hyndman).

What can I tell you? Some of us had already worked out that the description fitted only one species, Magnolia Warbler; and there it was in all its glory, in superb early evening sunlight, flitting around on one of the many sheer cliff faces on the island. It wasn't that close; but through 30× magnification it was truly beautiful. I still had to be careful that if I fainted I should remember to fall backwards and not forwards, but the potential danger had been largely eliminated by this nice, safe grassy arena at Copper Geo that allowed 40 of us excited admirers to gorge on the bird at our leisure. It occasionally disappeared for a few minutes at a time, and one had to concentrate carefully to find it again with the naked eye, but the beneficent light allowed some of us to stay in touch with it well beyond sunset. The plaintive sound of a Yellow-browed Warbler coming from the next geo in near-darkness could not but augment this remarkable experience. For me, personally, the fact I should by rights have been back on St Agnes where the only previous Magnolia Warbler in Britain had occurred 31 years ago, was particularly astonishing. In fact, I shall develop this St Agnes/Fair Isle theme later, as we go along.

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Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Steve Arlow)

And so it was that Paul and I returned pretty quickly next morning to the spot where we had been, as I said, 'knee-deep in warblers' the night before. Very soon a tiny little brown warbler, apparently unstreaked, flew from the crop in front of us and before long we were looking at our very own Paddyfield Warbler. To the disappointment of dozens of twitchers on Shetland and in Aberdeen, the Magnolia Warbler was nowhere to be seen today. This Paddyfield, however, was to stay almost ten days, relocating to the Boini Mire, the grassy marsh beneath the shop, soon after we first found it. On occasions it was extremely confiding and, particularly on the odd still afternoon, it could be enjoyed flycatching out in the open in a manner that belied the difficult first twenty minutes we had in trying to get to grips with it. The Blyth's Reed, too, hung on for well over a week; even more so than with the Paddyfield it was best looked for when the wind dropped and insects were on the wing. On those occasions the Blyth's would cease skulking deep in the rose bushes in the garden of ex-warden Nick Riddiford, jump out and perform a little like a restless Phylloscopus, flycatching and diving into the compost bin and coming out with various morsels. A second Arctic Warbler was turned up by Steve Arlow while looking for the Paddyfield and this gave astonishing 'Fair Isle' views out in the middle of the tarmac road in mid-afternoon. My binoculars don't have quite the same close focus as some of the more recent models, but still, in the space of an hour on one day I had to step back to focus on all three birds. Truly intimate moments.

Paddyfield Warbler
Paddyfield Warbler, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Rebecca Nason)

An Olive-backed Pipit turned up on the afternoon of the Paddyfield and stayed for four days. Another Lancy was trapped. Up to four Richard's Pipits and three Little Buntings were around for a week or so. It was unstoppable. Magnificent. Classy new arrivals every day. When the wind finally switched to northwest after four days of favourable easterlies, we said to ourselves "the only thing that could turn up today is a Buff-bellied Pipit", and one promptly did, at the top end of the island by the Observatory. The bird was in a similar situation to the Magnolia Warbler, feeding in a sheltered spot halfway down the enormous cliff face, except this time I didn't have a scope, so my views were rubbish, and unfortunately the bird was nothing more than a minor footnote at the end of the trip. If I could be allowed one moment of disappointment then this was it. My mate Paul missed it altogether, which goes to show that not every bird shows well to every birder on Fair Isle. So if you've got any friends up there on holiday and news of a crippler breaks, you've still got just a slight chance that they won't have seen it and gripped you off (but it's not likely).

Obviously we would have taken what we'd seen so far, but Fair Isle wasn't finished yet — not by a long way. At the end of a day during which, perhaps for the first time, no new birds had turned up, Paul and I had returned to base at dusk only to hear that a Pechora Pipit was showing in the dark, a mile up the road. The fact we got there ten minutes later was pretty meaningless as, yes, the Pechora Pipit was still in the open field where it had spent the last hour of light, but the view of a much desired lifer was appalling. Luckily it was there again next day and proved to be a sensational bird with an unobtrusive character not unlike a Lanceolated Warbler. And talking of Lanceolated Warblers, the third of the week, but by far the most extraordinary (and possibly the bird of the trip, gaudy seconds for Britain notwithstanding), turned up at the top of the island the same day as the Pechora. Paul and I offered to help out the wardening team fixing the huge Double Dyke Heligoland trap just down the road from the observatory. But from time to time we excused ourselves to walk the 100 yards down the hill to where this Lanceolated continued performing right out in the open all day long. At one point I was crouched down so close watching it trot past my nose that I swear I could hear its footsteps in the grass!

Pechora Pipit
Pechora Pipit, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Rebecca Nason)

Surely no more? Well, I've just about run out of superlatives to cover the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, Black-throated Thrush and Citrine Wagtail that turned up over the next couple of days. I want to move away from the rarities to cover other aspects of this magnificent adventure.

I'm known amongst friends for not giving much shrift to geese when they turn up in their odd ones and twos in places where I've birdwatched over the last ten years — Scilly and southern Ireland — but to see them at the peak of their autumn passage flying over in flocks of up to 100 was a sight I shan't quickly forget. Most of them were Greylags, occurring particularly on days of moderate northwest winds; often from first light, and frequently the same flocks still to be seen circling the island in mid-afternoon, trying to work out the direction of the next landfall. One flock of 120 Barnacles I saw three times during one day — and I shall always remember a group of 70 or so Greylags that I picked up some two miles away as I was scoping Gannets and Fulmars still present in large numbers on their breeding cliffs at Bunness. Though I grew up next to a colony of some two to three hundred Fulmars — and there are a handful breeding on St Agnes — I spent many a half-hour marvelling at their aerial capabilities as they swooped by at close range into the wind, investigating this curious, and slightly jealous, observer. Show offs!

Next on the list of more regular birds easily taken for granted in the quest for little brown rarities were three passerines I've seen very little of in the aforementioned ten years at a more southerly latitude: Twite, Brambling and Snow Bunting. The last especially were a joy to see in groups of twenty, thirty, fifty, some passing straight over, others lingering long enough to allow an endearingly close approach that took me back to my very earliest days of birding as an 11-year-old in northeast England where they were more regular. Delightfully tame, superbly plumaged and with an enchanting bell-like call, what more could you ask for in a bird! Two different flocks of Brambling I saw numbered at least a hundred birds; and, along with Redwing and Fieldfare that I'd seen on the breeding grounds in Finland earlier in the year, added an extra dimension to my experience of this extraordinary multicoloured species. It was interesting and educational to see Dunnocks, Song Thrushes, Robins and Blackbirds here on passage only, too. Influxes of Song Thrushes and Robins are occasionally detectable among the multitude that breed on Scilly, the others distinctly far less so — though I have seen Dunnocks in small parties at treetop level there and wondered whether they're coming from afar. Perhaps now I know?

Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Micky Maher)

And as for the scenery? I realized to myself that quite often in the past the places that I've developed a relationship with — Whitburn, Ballycotton, Inishmor, Lundy, for example — the depth of appreciation of the landscape has been fostered during periods of famine, when one is simply going through the motions of birding on days when nothing is likely to turn up, waiting for the winds to change to lift one out of the doldrums. This is when I get the chance to sit and take notice of the rocks and the beaches and the vegetation that make up these wonderful, wild places we visit in search of rare migrants. Certainly many hours have elapsed in-between times in recent years on St Agnes just simply watching the wind and the waves, listening to the breezes and seeing the lapping tides against the seashore. Having hit the ground running, as it were, here on Fair Isle, it took me a while to experience this different side to the place; almost two weeks in fact before I allowed myself to walk up the less well-watched Malcolm's Head and to spend an afternoon simply marvelling at the views of the unfathomably magnificent geological foundations of the place and its astonishing clifftop scenery. Some darker, colder nights towards the end of my stay allowed me to sit in by a coal fire, sipping whisky and listening to the wind roaring around the place. Excitement and peace, the bipolar dimensions of a perfect holiday.

Magnolia Warbler twitch (Tommy Hyndman).

I couldn't help comparing and contrasting the place where I've lived for the past five years, St Agnes (where an empty bed was still lying in wait for my return), and the situation I was enjoying now. I wouldn't be the first birder trying to make my mind up which location I prefer. Having chosen Scilly as the place to live, there are quiet times when one looks with envy to the islands off the northern end of the UK, and by dint of loyalty to one's patch tells oneself and friends that actually you'd prefer to be here overlooking the soft, sandy beaches and the waving tamarisks and rose-covered cottages. That's maybe why there were times early in my stay on Fair Isle when I felt like a traitor to my home patch and my birding friends on Scilly (especially when watching that Magnolia) or like a spy in the enemy camp, if you prefer. I found myself regularly scoring a point for Fair Isle here, a point for Scilly there. For example, it was strange to be spending an autumn in a place where there have only been two Firecrests ever, whereas I've had 4–5 roosting in my garden at times on St Agnes. A point for Scilly there. But then you see a Lanceolated Warbler (one record for Scilly) and wonder why it is Fair Isle continues to enjoy such a monopoly of these birds that are clearly occurring elsewhere in the country, undetected. It's not a competition, just a game we play with our minds; in the end, perhaps it's the trees and perhaps the milder winters that have just pipped it for me to favour Scilly over Shetland, but for these unforgettable three weeks at least I felt there was nowhere else to be other than on Fair Isle. I think by the time the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler appeared towards the end of week two, I first came up with the title of this piece. My mates were ringing me up from Scilly and I just couldn't help but wish that they could enjoy what I was experiencing too. Some of them had been the ones that had dropped out that had allowed me the chance to be there in the first place. As the great Scottish philosopher Rab C. Nesbitt once said: "If ah had thae choice between ma wife and Kim Basinger, obviously ah'd choose Kim Basinger but at least ah'd hae the decency tae feel a wee bit guilty aboot it!"

Time moved on and the enclosed world that was Fair Isle in those amazing first two weeks was eventually opened up by events out to the west of Ireland (Eastern Kingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Myrtle Warbler), and Scilly clawed back a few 'regular' rarities (Grey-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Solitary Sandpiper). The weather turned cold with strong winds from the northeast and thousands of Redwings poured in. Much to my chagrin, I missed an event that might have capped even the Magnolia Warbler had I been there to see it, bedding down and turning off my phone at midnight, five minutes before Jason texted me to say the aurora borealis was on show to the north of the Observatory! Still I stayed on for another ten days, reluctant to leave lest I never had the opportunity to return. It was in those darker, colder days and nights that the journey into fantasy and imagination began, and the desire I eventually left Fair Isle with was, surprisingly, not Chestnut-eared Bunting or Siberian Blue Robin, but to sit among Puffins in their burrows on Midsummer's Night. Watch this space.

Written by: Graham Gordon