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Fair Isle – Classic Autumn Birding – Classic Timing!

Posted by Deryk Shaw on Friday 2nd November 2012 | Birding in Shetland

Resident island birder, and former Fair Isle Bird Observatory warden of 12 years, Deryk Shaw rounds up this year’s run of island classics over the period spanning our holiday dates on the magical isle in 2013 (in association with Birdwatch magazine).

After 14 years of birding on Fair Isle (12 of them as Warden of the Obs), if there is one thing I have learnt it is that birds can turn up any time. In autumn, given the right weather conditions, I have witnessed spectacular falls of common migrants and seen marvellous birds on countless dates between late July and early November. However I would have to say that the two week period late September into early October has consistently been the best for numbers and variety of birds.

This year proved to be no exception and in fact I could almost go as far to say it was Fair Isle at its best and given the Magnolia Warbler just days earlier it probably was! The Last days of September produced an extremely approachable Paddyfield Warbler (feeding in vegetation at people’s feet), Lanceolated Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Buff-bellied Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit and multiple Little Buntings, Yellow-browed Warblers, Barred Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike as well as large numbers of common migrants, including the first autumn arrivals of Snow Buntings (100+) and Lapland Buntings (20+).

October was kicked off in typical FI style by a remarkably obliging Pechora Pipit strolling about on short grass, just yards from the group of 20 to 30 assembled observers (another great thing about birding Fair Isle, there are no crowds!!!) and, allowing even closer views, a Blyth’s Reed Warbler actually made its way into the Obs lounge!! Meanwhile, the confiding Paddyfield also continued to entertain all-comers. On the way to work the following morning (my post-Obs income is mainly provided by working on the Good Shepherd ferry) I was stopped by some birders to look at a photograph they had just taken of a bird nearby. They were ecstatic when I told them that they had just found the autumn’s second Lanceolated Warbler! This was another delightfully confiding bird, creeping along at the base of the stone wall near to one of the Obs heligoland traps, allowing some frame-filling photos!

However this was just a warm-up for the ultimate Locustella as mid-morning on the 3rd I was birding part of the east side when I got a call from Will Miles, FIBO Assistant Warden, informing me that there was “an almost certain PG Tips” (Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler to give it its full title) in the south, near Utra! My car was nearby and I drove there as fast as I could, stopping to pick up a few breathless birders on the way – I even went back to pick up some more before getting out the car to look at the photos! It looked like one to me!! Once everyone had arrived, a mist-net was erected and the bird quickly flushed from its hiding place – an overgrown ditch – into it. Exhilaration swept through the gathering when Will confirmed its identity as he extracted it from the net.

At the same time, Fair Isle’s sixth Arctic Warbler of the year, a couple of Richard’s Pipits and a Corncrake were also all new species for some of the crowd! I took a short break from birding on 5th as it was the annual round-up of the isle’s hill sheep, to take off the lambs. I was standing at the ‘cru’ (sheep pens), along with fellow SN team members Rebecca Nason, Phil Harris and Micky Maher who were staying with us at the time (everyone wants to be on Fair Isle at this time!) when we heard a familiar call overhead. I scoured the sky and spotted the culprit approaching from the north and declared “Citrine Wagtail!” as it flew high over us calling and continued south. Sheep safely rounded up and sorted, we all went back to birding this magic isle and the bird was re-found later that afternoon and showed well to all!

A strong cold easterly the following day brought in thousands of Redwings and a fine male Black-throated Thrush plus lots of Goldcrests. A quieter couple of days followed (apart from the gale force wind!) although the long-staying Lanceolated Warbler continued to scurry about in Field ditch.

A light NE’ly breeze on 11th saw a further large arrival of Redwings interspersed with a scattering of rarities and scarcities including another Blyth’s Reed Warbler, two Olive-backed Pipits, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Corncrake and a smart Great Grey Shrike. The next few days continued in the similar vein with large numbers of thrushes piling in, joined by hundreds of Bramblings and Goldcrests, another Olive-backed Pipit and a nice Woodlark with the Lanceolated Warbler and Great Grey Shrike lingering.

Now, as I write this at the end of the month, the weather is getting cooler and the days shorter but thrushes continue to arrive in numbers, I can hear the trill of Waxwings every time I step outside, the first Northern Bullfinches of the autumn have arrived and I have seen my third Siberian Rubythroat. Best of all though, I have added Blue Tit to my Fair Isle list!!! There’s nowhere I’d rather be, I hope you come and join me on our 2013 Fair Isle Autumn Birding holiday.

Deryk Shaw