Rarity finders: It's really, really 'Not Fair' Isle!


Back in February, I wrote you a piece entitled "It's Just 'Not Fair' Isle", telling you about a three-week visit to that hallowed isle between Shetland and Orkney in September 2012. I described sightings of Magnolia, Blyth's Reed and Paddyfield Warblers, Buff-bellied Pipit, Black-throated Thrush and so on and so on, and signed off expressing a wish to sit among Puffins on midsummer's night. What I didn't tell you was that when I ended my article, I'd just found out that I'd been accepted to play the role of Assistant Cook and Domestic Assistant for the full six months of the 2013 spring, summer and autumn season. The Puffins I'll tell you about in more detail another time, except to say here that there reached a point in my stay where I declared I would not see a better bird by the time I left the island, not even if I was to see my most wanted British lifer, a White's Thrush. That's how much I enjoyed them.

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

But times have changed. I did see a White's Thrush, as described to you by Craig Thomas in his finder's account here on the BirdGuides webzine back in October. It turned up when I was cooking breakfast for 35 people in the Observatory kitchen, and the fact that I managed to get out and see it and still produce my unburnt sausages on time was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the autumn. It was brilliant. But again, perhaps I'll delve more thoroughly into that some other time. For now, as some of you may already know, something happened to me that topped even these two fantastic experiences and I'm going to jump ahead in time and tell you the best bit first.

Those of you who know me, and some who have read these pages, will know that I've set my stall out since I was young to go out and find my own rare birds in the UK (and Ireland). I love a good twitch and thoroughly enjoy birding overseas, but ever since I came across my first Greenish Warbler in Tyne and Wear back in 1984 I've always found the mystifying thrill of being the first to clap eyes on something unusual is one of the prime raisons d'etre of my birding passion. It's something, since growing up in Whitburn in the north-east of England, that has been carved into my existence and is deep in the blood. I've put myself in positions over the past 15 years (since returning to Europe from Cape May) to increase my chances of those heart-stopping, hands-trembling moments happening as often as possible — first at Ballycotton, Ireland; then St Agnes, Scilly; and now Fair Isle, Shetland. The trouble is that in coming here, I also signed up to be busy in a full-time job, 48 hours a week at the prime time of the year, September–October, when most of those possibilities are occurring. With a team of three wardens out prowling the island every day from early morning onwards and up to 30 visitors at a time, each with their own ambitions of being the first to the rarities, my chances of finding things seemed to be increasingly slim. Couple this with the fact that the prime weather conditions (easterly winds) never seemed to coincide with my two days a week off, and a frustrating spell of potential rarities escaping me — encapsulated by a stint flying over my head without stopping in early July that called like a Semi-pee, or maybe even a Red-necked — and I was beginning to wonder if I should give up the whole idea of searching for my own birds at all. And an increasingly bizarre series of events that saw me cycling past no fewer than four Subalpine Warblers (still a 'find tick' for me) minutes before they were found added to the puzzle. What had happened to my share of good luck? The one major rarity I did come across, Fair Isle's fourth Pallid Harrier in early June, I saw so briefly that I couldn't have said it was this species and not Montagu's without the aid of the warden's camera and left me with a rather empty feeling of dissatisfaction.

And I'm not finished moaning yet, or rather I'm not finished setting the context for the point of this preamble. Other 'good birds' I bumped into during the course of the summer, island ticks for the wardens — Roseate Tern, Nightjar, Spotted Redshank, Pochard — all nice birds (well, apart from the last one), but they were hardly going to set the world alight, were they? I did find the first Citrine Wagtail of the year outside the Observatory window, and I realize that most of you would take that for starters but I'm sorry, I've lived in Ballycotton and St Agnes for the past ten years, and I've come across one of them almost every year since.

But enough of that. That's my luck up until the end of September and these things were running through my mind — though I'm enjoying my birding and very much enjoying going to see other people's rarities: three Arctic Warblers I saw; four Thrush Nightingales; four Subalps, etc. etc. Then I find my own Arctic Warbler on a day off (light westerly winds). That's great. I enjoy that, even if it is the fourth of the year. Then, suddenly, I've got my own Lanceolated Warbler on another day off (again, westerly winds); even better, brilliant obviously, though again, it's the third of the year. Then I've found a Blyth's Reed (also the island's fourth of the year — Fair Isle is that good); two Olive-backed Pipits (fourth and fifth of the year!); and eventually a Dusky Warbler, the first the Observatory staff and guests get to enjoy for the year, though two of them had seen one briefly on the northern cliffs earlier in the week. So that's my Fair Isle CV as we're coming towards the end of October and I figure it's starting to look a lot healthier now. I'm pretty satisfied I've found a few birder's birds in there and I've had a few find ticks and I've had a couple of lucky moments with the Lancy and the Dusky in particular that have helped get the monkey off my back, me thinking the birding gods had completely forsaken me.

At last with my final two days off for the season coming up, it looked like I was going to be in with a decent bit of easterly wind such that I could set off first thing in the morning while everyone else was sitting down to breakfast in the rare hope of having first shot at the best spots on the island. The week before, on a day of light northerlies after several strong westerlies — the morning of the Dusky in fact — I'd had a brief taste of that feeling of experiencing birds dropping into the island soon after first light and a sense that I was the one on the island in with the best chance. Remember six mornings a week I'm in the kitchen cooking breakfast. As Matthew Hoggard said to the BBC interviewer after stroking the winning runs in an incredibly tense Ashes victory over Australia, the feeling of being out in the middle and in control was far less pressurizing than being on the balcony or in the crowd sitting watching and unable to affect events. That's how I felt on those rare mornings off in good conditions. It was just great to be out there: a Reed Bunting dropping in; five Skylarks flying over. For all the talk I've heard of Fair Isle being an afternoon island, I just hadn't experienced that in my two or three hours' free time between lunch and dinner each day. I just ended up seeing the same birds that had already been seen in the mornings. It was the hours between dawn and lunchtime when the vast majority of birds were first found that seemed so crucial.

So the winds have been blasting south-easterly for several days and it's been raining really heavily. It looks like my days off in the last week of October are going to be okay, light to moderate easterlies and a clearing up of the rain. Rain and strong winds are great for the mainland, where birds can't help but bump into the coastline, but in isolated places like Fair Isle and Scilly light winds and reasonable visibility are much better for migrating birds seeing the islands, and much more pleasant for birding in.

Just after lunch on my last day at work before 48 hours of freedom, the rain stops for the first time in almost three days, and I decide to go for a bit of a recce down the island on one of the Obs bikes. A similar journey three days earlier, before the rain started, had produced something of a sad, end-of-season wintry feel to the afternoon. Now, the number of guests at the Observatory has dropped to below 20, so I've got three hours before being back to prepare the evening meal. Usually I park the bike at the 'Plantation', a mile down the road from the Obs and walk from there. Sometimes, as this afternoon, I cycle another mile down the road and park at the shop, the Stackhoul Stores. That's what I was concentrating on. Get to the shop and have a meander from there. Everyone has been out all morning and tomorrow is my day off, I'm just out for the sake of it. No big deal.

I'm not really looking at anything in particular when, out the corner of my eye, I notice a silhouette sitting low on a wire-mesh fence next to the road. A big plastic water container in the same spot obscures my view but also allows me to bring the bike to a sudden halt and leap off my bike without disturbing the bird. Even in silhouette I know it's a dark bird and the way it's holding its long tail above the horizontal sets off a little bell in the back of my mind. It can't be, can it? There's no real panic as I peep out from behind the cover of the water container: surely it's a Reed Bunting, or a Bluethroat at best? I raise my binoculars and it's a male Siberian Rubythroat sitting there, side-on, less than ten metres away! Ka-boom!

Male Siberian Rubythroat, Fair Isle (Photo: Kevin Kelly)

There's absolutely no mistaking it, obviously, but just for a split second a wave of disbelief hits me before I rub my eyes and spring into action. First I phone Assistant Warden Richard Cope, who I cycled past on the road just minutes earlier, but his mobile doesn't respond. So I start shouting. Loud. The bird, on seeing me, has now dived into the nearest garden at Upper Stoneybreck and there's no chance I'm going to spook it, so I just start bellowing at the top of my voice: "Richard! Richard!" Richard is still some quarter of a mile away but he hears me and starts running, while I begin to jump up and down and let out a yell of pure joy! He later told me he was about to give up running when his dodgy ankle started to play up but, seeing me rolling around on the grassy verge kicking my arms and legs in the air, he thought he'd better keep going. Once on the scene it took just a minute to refind the bird and Richard fired off some quick record shots. Tales of last year's long-staying but impossibly wary female Rubythroat had not led me to anticipate a moment like this: a glorious male Rubythroat sitting right out in the open, giving itself up like it wanted to be adored.

Next up, I'm on the phone to warden David Parnaby, who's somewhere in the north of the island, a couple of miles away. After being on the receiving end of some pretty gripping news over the past month — White's Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Red-eyed Vireo, Sykes's Warbler — it's exhilarating to be the one to put the call out. David's there in minutes in one of the Obs vans, along with the few guests who could be rounded up in double-quick time. The remainder arrive not long later with David's wife, Susannah. The sudden arrival of so many folks induces the Rubythroat to make a dash for more distant cover, and I excuse myself from the crowd to slink off and find somewhere to express my inner emotions out loud. I believe it was the Anglo-Saxons that introduced some words into our language that enabled me to do this?

Male Siberian Rubythroat, Fair Isle (Photo: Kevin Kelly)

An hour or so later I'd calmed down enough to allow me to return and have another, more relaxed look at the Rubythroat as it spent the late afternoon back in the original garden at Upper Stoneybreck. Initially it was still in the same garden first thing the following morning, but by midday it had moved a few hundred yards to a garden known as The Chalet, from where it deigned to perform in the most ridiculous fashion, right out in the open.

This short video gives an idea of what I mean by performing in ridiculous fashion — though in real life the bird appeared even closer than the footage suggests. (Video: Henry Hyndman)

This being Fair Isle, a Paddyfield Warbler popped out into the open while we were watching the ruby-throated boy and started feeding at point-blank range at the side of the road. This bird couldn't be refound later in the afternoon, but once again I returned to the Main Event for the last hour of the day and watched it apparently go to roost in the dense rose-bushes in the garden. It was there again at first light next day, yet managed to elude some desperately unlucky twitchers from the mainland in the early afternoon as a violent storm sent everything, especially us birders, deep into cover. It was just at that point that news of the Cape May Warbler broke, robbing me at the last minute of my third BirdGuides 'Bird of the Week', and underlining just for a moment how quickly and easily so soon after a mega we greedy birders can find ourselves cursing our rotten luck and thinking: "Gosh, I'd like to have found that!"

But this moment of forgetfulness soon passed. (I managed to see the CMW a few days later.) Returning to the euphoria of the Rubythroat, I was able to tell non-birding friends I had found a 'Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Bird' and I wasn't exaggerating. I presume I'm not the only birder who's spent a lazy afternoon on a summer beach actively engaged in a fantasy of finding a Rubythroat somewhere in the UK later that autumn. For me, that act of imagination usually pitched the scene on Wingletang Down and the circumstances always involved the initial sight of an all-dark tail disappearing into thick gorse; a panicky 20-minute wait; followed by, perhaps, another brief inconclusive sighting. Eventually the bird would come out and show itself, and you'd put the news out and everyone would come and see it and all would be happy. Yet in those mental exercises all I could ever allow myself to imagine was that it was a female (or plain-throated first-winter male). I wonder when I hear sportsmen say that scoring the winning goal or hitting the century at Lords was 'a dream come true' whether it's just a phrase they roll out for the cameras. When a couple walk into their house at the end of a 30-minute television show and say that what the design team have achieved is 'beyond their wildest dreams', do they mean it in a literal sense, or is that just hyperbole too? Another phrase 'it's too good to be true' seems to convey this same idea: that out there beyond the limits of the known universe there is a level of reality inaccessible in the day-to-day lives of ordinary men and women; a place so unlikely to exist that it leads to a warning from the 'wise' that "if it's too good to be true ... then it probably is!"

I'm here to tell you that's not always the case.

Written by: Graham Gordon