Fair Isle Flunk With Some Mainland Luck - October 2005

Published by David Andrews (David.Andrews AT uea.ac.uk)

Participants: David Andrews, Will Soar, Ollie Richings, Simon Mitchell and Craig Holden


26th October - Sitting on the cliffs at Beeston bump, shortly after dipping what had proven to be a brief Barred Warbler at West Runton, myself, Will Soar, Simon Mitchell and Ollie Richings discussed our usual bad luck as well as recent birds in the UK and Azores we were missing out on. Of particular interest was the Siberian Rubythroat that had been present for 4 days on Fair Isle, and we jokingly suggested a trip, hopefully picking some other rares on the way. The joke however, soon turned to reality, we were sick of seeing nothing in Norfolk, and something had to be done. To cut petrol cost we needed one more person, after asking around with no takers we offered the place on RBA and Craig Holden contacted us.

Despite the likely onset of an influx of Nearctic vagrants, the full team of UEA students + 1 set off on Thursday night (27th), arriving at Torness Power station for dawn. As CH needed Paddyfield Warbler, we waited here until it showed. As light improved I picked it up hopping around lively and actively feeding as it was the two weeks before, when we had first seen the bird on another expensive trip around Britain, getting Lesser Scaup, 2 Rustic Buntings and a Little Bunting. With no time to waste, we moved round the corner to try and relocate the Hume’s Leaf Warbler at Skateraw. Unfortunately it and many of the Crests had taken advantage of the overnight weather system and had moved on. A late Osprey in off the sea was our only compensation. Another stop-off was made for a Dusky Warbler that had been showing on and off nearby. After witnessing many wrongly identified chiffy’s being called as the Dusky by some birders, the bird was not showing. A trip to the other side of the river pool provided me with a brief view of the real bird skulking at the base of a willow tree. Unfortunately this was the only sighting.

News of a Todd’s Canada goose near Edinburgh had us racing up to Cramond, but the lack of location details of the bird meant that it had either moved on or we were in the wrong place. The lack of Scottish news and our dipping run was beginning to be felt, and the suggestion of returning to Norwich was beginning to be seriously considered. We decided to move on anyway, time was short so we missed out on the Sardinian Warbler but carried on to Montrose. Still no news on the Daurian Shrike meant morale reach it's lowest ebb of the day, however our luck finally seemed to change as we drove towards the site and an old couple with a telescope were parked up. The Shrike was sat up nicely, feeding well and only about 50 feet away allowing some reasonable photography. Light was fading and we had to be in Aberdeen by 17:30 so into the car we got.

Daurian ShrikeDaurian Shrike
Daurian Shrike, copyright Will Soar

The 12hr ferry crossing to Lerwick was not the most pleasurable journey, but we survived and were taking in our first sights of the isolated port by 0730. In the Harbour we picked up Black Guillemot (yr tick), as well as Long-tailed duck and Eider. A flock of 90 Brambling in a garden near the port had us hoping that migrants would still be hitting Fair Isle, so even if the rubythroat had gone we had the chance of a good find due to the lack of remaining birders.

On the bus down to Grutness we considered our options; the Rubythroat had not been seen since the 25th and a trip across to Fair Isle would mean at least 2 days on the island in order to avoid the ridiculous price of chartering a plane. We tried for the Olive-backed Pipit, which had been in a crop field near the Sumburgh Hotel, but the potatoes were being harvested so after scanning and waiting we moved on. A few Woodcock were flushed in the area, several pale Chiffchaffs, a Northern Wheatear and a Blackcap were also present.

After an awful journey aboard the ‘Good’ Shepherd we landed on Fair Isle with news of nothing but a Black-bellied dipper being reported. A brief look for this before dark was unrewarded.

Waking to gale force winds, although unenthusiastic we spent the day searching the east and south of the island, including a heart-stopping moment when a extremely skulky, what turned out to be Song Thrush, could not be flushed from a cabbage patch. A flock of 120 Snow Buntings and good numbers of Woodcock were the only other half-decent birds to be seen.

Our second day on Fair Isle, despite lower winds and fair weather, proved to be no better with 2 Jack Snipe and a Lapland Bunting putting in an appearance. The Black-bellied Dipper was also briefly seen, unfortunately only by me again as I flushed it.

With the Observatory season over, we ended up spending Halloween playing poker in the isolated croft building known as The Puffin. With the Island being apparently haunted, we suspected it may be a ghost with a sense of humour that had scrawled 'The Puff Inn' above the fireplace. High winds again had us dreading that the boat wouldn’t be leaving in the morning but, fortunately for all but WS's stomach, it did.

We arrived back at Grutness harbour, with news of the OBP still being present, we hoped for at least one other bird out of the trip. Laden up with all our gear we headed towards the OBP field.

WS, OR and CH had gone ahead while SM and I caught up. Just around the corner from the pier, a group of waders flew onto the beach and included a small number Turnstone and a small Calidris sp. With brief binocular views SM and I both assumed it was just a Dunlin, however with its size and general impression I was not convinced. SM continued to catch the others up while I put all my stuff down and set up my scope. A stint! My immediate impression was it was something unusual. I called SM back and got him on the bird, he was soon running back to the others saying “Dave’s just picked up a stint; I think it’s a Semi-P!”

Rael and Mark, the Fair Isle Assistant Wardens who also were on the returning boat from Fair Isle had also just seen the bird fly in, though thought it was probably a little stint and couldn’t hang around to check it again due to a waiting lift.

Intense scrutiny of the birds features, concluded that it was a Juvenile Semi-Palmated Sandpiper. SM, WS, OR and CH photographed the bird as it showed down to 20m. After putting the news out on the pager the bird was twitched by only two birders, though more appeared later.

Semipalmated sandpiper
Semi-palmated Sandpiper, copyright Craig Holden

A second attempt for the OBP was again unrewarding but the high from finding the Semi-P overrode any bad feeling from dipping an OBP.

2nd November – Arriving at Aberdeen at 07:00 we were away by 07:30. Terrible weather dissuaded us from going for the Lesser Snow Goose at Montrose or the Sardinian Warbler at Fife Ness. Some awful Scottish drivers meant we only narrowly avoid a serious collision in the torrential rain. However, news of a Desert Wheatear (which WS’s pager had missed while on Fair Isle) still present at Holy Island had us driving like crazy to get to there before the causeway closed, as four of the team needed it for Brit list. Arrival on Holy Island had us asking an 8 year-old boy where his school was so we could see the wheatear. After excellent instructions we pulled up round the corner to be confronted by a small group of birders with their scopes pointing into the sky. We jumped out of the car to see a small swift circling above our heads and immediately identified it as a ****** Chimney Swift!! Through all our excitement was a slight disappointment that if we were five minutes earlier it would have been our bird. Amazing.

Desert WheatearChimney Swift
Desert Wheatear and Chimney Swift copyright Simon Mitchell

Views of the bird were had as it flew around our heads. News then went out on the pager, though, due to the tide, the causeway would be closed within 20 minutes. We were pained to leave the bird while we went and saw the Desert Wheatear, but this also showed very well. At one time the swift and wheatear could be seen in the same binocular vision. We then returned to the swift where it continued to hug the church area looking as if it would probably roost there. The tide was rising however and news of a Pallid Swift hanging around in Cleveland had us racing back across the causeway and heading towards South Gare.

Arriving at the site we were immediately greeted by the swift showing incredibly well over the rocks and beach. We watched the bird for 20 minutes before jumping back in the car and trying to get to the Laughing gull roost before dark. This time we were too late, it was dark by the time we got there. We returned to Norwich jubilant, though out of pocket for the next year.

Dave Andrews
3rd November 2005