Monday, 17 October 2016

OK Now For Some Progress Towards The European Record

Sunday 9th October light E very sunny, warm

A peregrine is flying along the Hill Dyke stone wall as I climb towards the geos to search for yesterday's flycatcher. There's hardly a cloud and hardly a breath of wind. The sun is rising and the shadows are leaving the geos and cliffs.
A couple of hours I spend looking down at the Grey Geo but no flycatcher is there. A chance for a good bird dissipates.
I walk up Guidicom and around to Skinner's Geo. There are migrants, goldcrests of course and a couple of yellow-browed warblers. Chiff chaffs all seem to be of the nominate race.

The sea is amazingly flat, not a ripple and so blue! This is October and I need sun tan lotion.
I walk past the radio mast and around to view the sound between Shetland and Fair Isle; my hope is that cetacean or two will show themselves. They don't but this doesn't detract from the stunningly magnificent scenery and views. 

Houses can clearly seen on Shetland around Toab and Quendale; the lighthouse stands proudly atop Sumburgh Head, an RSPB reserve.
I explore the island after breakfast at the Bird Observatory. Birds become secondary to the main motivation of enjoying a warm Autumn day.
Silver y moths are in the shop garden and migrant birds are still chasing flies. A perfect day.
Birds are obviously though still a focus. Little buntings in the thistles at North Shirva with reed buntings, twite and bramblings. All look fabulous in the perfect light. 

Even the pechora pipit gives views at Lower Stoneybrek.
In the late evening I head up Buness to watch the darkness fall and the Moon rise. Such clarity and beauty. Unmatched.

Monday 10th October

Sunrise is incredible.

I am on the trap round with lee and Nina. The sun breaches the horizon as a distant nuclear explosion.
On the way back with a few bird bags full I spot a large splash half way out over the sea to the horizon. It has got to be a whale.
It breaches, once, twice then blows water six feet high as it breaths, a minke or a humpback I am not sure. Lee says minke. It tail flukes and is gone.
After breakfast there is only one topic of conversation. How can we get to the Shetland mainland fast? A first for Britain bird, a Siberian accentor has been found and all birders on the isle want to get there to see it.
The Birding Clams had it last night and whilst I was on Buness I had talked to them as they watched the bird on the phone. The fact that I could see the hill on which the mega rare bird was residing as I talked to the lads only added to the tension.
Hard moments of decision making, I determined that I needed to see it Green, that is use the Good Shepherd boat and not fly to it. The Good Shepherd would be leaving tomorrow, the plane today. Tough decision but necessary.
I watched the minibus leave with birders leave for the airport. I saw them all return half an hour later. The plane had broken down!
Lots of justifiable anger in the lounge, how can such a vital service for Fair Isle be with a plane that breaks down?
I am desperate for Lee Gregory to see it. He deserves to see it and I say that if the only way for lee to see the bird then I would pay my bit for the charter to help make up the numbers. Cath Mendez phones a company but no plane is available. The frustrated anger rises.
At this time the news is that the plane might be fixed for two days time. Birders are booked onto the Good Shepherd including myself (thanks Susannah).
I have appointments to visit Jim and Florrie, two original crofters in the south of the island and with Mati over a purchase.
The former aren't in and I spend a few hours chatting with Mati about love and hearing Mati's young daughter playing the keyboard. She will be a superstar at this rate as she composes her own pieces. Not bad for an eight year old.
I get back to the bird obs to find the plane has gone after all. The time it left, 5:15pm will mean that the birders who left will get ten minutes or so of decent light once they reach the bird they will have ten minutes of decent life. That is enough and I am chuffed to see that Lee has gone. Will that the bird stays for me tomorrow. A clear star-filled sky with a large Gibbous Moon doesn't bode well. The International Space Station flying over this is spectacular as are a number of shooting stars.

Tuesday 11th October light SE sunny intervals.

The Good Shepherd leaves on time and I am on deck with Ellen, the Fair Isle nurse who is on her way to Rumania, and Marc, a Belgian photographer, author and journalist. The sea is relatively calm but still the Good Shepherd rolls from side to side, occasionally throwing me about. I cling on to the rails. Sailing on this boat always seems to double time and the slow crossing takes it's usual age. The views of the distant Shetland islands are clear and Foula can be seen to the NW.

Sunrise, a Japanese flag of sunbeams.
Guillemots pass in groups of three, a single razorbill and a single sooty shearwater.
Past Sumburgh Head and around into Grutness Harbour, I already know the news, the Siberian accentor has gone.
Lee Gregory is at the quayside awaiting his return trip to Fair Isle. He saw the accentor last night and shows me photographs of the First for Britain bird. I am thrilled for him. Lee deserves this bird. It is sure to bring his mojo back!

My mojo is disappearing fast. I find that a gear cable has rusted through leaving me with a single gear. Oh well, my mother, bless her little positive socks, always says that troubles come in threes so I look forward to the third.
Boddam, well just before it has a field to the east with waders and in with a single ruff, a few redshank and curlew and a number of golden plover and lapwing, is an American wader, a buff-breasted sandpiper. Bird number 301 goes down onto the list. At least that went well.

I head off for Quendale to have a walk. I don't feel like a long cycle to Bressay despite the fact there is a mega rare bird there. Frankly I am tired out. I was late getting to bed last night and early getting up this morning to take down the tent, pack and get the boat. I need a rest.

Wednesday 12th October light SE sunny intervals

Down to Quendale again, I meet Julian Allen, a Midland Birder, the one who sneaked onto a recent photograph of The Birding Clams celebrating the Siberian accentor. A natter and good luck wishes both ways, I head off along the valley and search the quarry and iris beds. I don't stop at the head of the valley but continue up the slope over the heather moorland to the top of nearest hill to the radar station. I have the vain hope that the Siberian accentor has relocated to this hill.
It hasn't and a text to say that there is a pallid harrier down the bottom of the hill has me careering down the hillside.
That's gone too.
A little bunting down the alley doesn't tempt me. Fair Isle withdrawal symptoms. I need my mojo back.

Thursday 13th October fresh SE cloudy

I head back towards Quendale. A text from The Oracle.....
black-faced bunting still at Gunnista, Bressay.
I turn around and pack the bike. Let's go for the bunting!
I reach the harbour at one and take the quick ferry across to Bressay. Gunnista doesn't take long to reach and the search begins for the elusive and mobile rare bird. There are derelict croft buildings and barns, each with bits of garden or weeds. graveyard has an interesting ruined church. 

Also piles of manure in a field and a pampas grass garden some way down a grassy slope. All are searched and a male redstart, a robin and couple each of goldcrest and rock pipit reward me for my efforts.
A local farmer comes up to me on a quadbike. “It was in the turnip field this morning,” he tells me.
How many times should one go around a large turnip field before saying enough is enough. I try five times clockwise, then five times anti-clockwise trying to change my luck. There are birds, twite, house sparrows, skylarks and a single brambling. Also there are a couple of rather tame chiff chaffs and a wren. No bunting.
Getting dark and cloudy with the wind strengthening, I put up my tent. I will get it tomorrow.

Friday 14th October strong SE occasional bits of rain, cold
Somehow the tent managed to collapse on me overnight as a gale blew. Not surprisingly it lead to some interrupted sleep.
Awake early, I go around the turnip field again, same birds, few more pigeons, and around the manure heaps, the graveyard and the farm buildings. Same redstart and robin present.
Two birders arrive, Neil from Holt, Norfolk and John from Holbeach. John sums up the situation succinctly. “What a hell hole!”
Together we search all of the areas already mentioned. No luck.
At 11:00AM they go off to fetch another birder, Dan Poignton. T legendary bird-finder, Dan will find the bird.

John, Neil and I are by the turnip field. A call on John's phone, Dan has found the bunting.
Unknown to we three there is a cabbage patch about 200 yards from the turnip patch. The bunting is in there. It flies out and amazingly lands on a five bar gate and just sits there. Telescope views show a bunting with a black face and
Phew! Hours of hell in wind and rain and the bird is now secured onto the Green Year list, black-faced bunting, bird number 302. This is a very rare British bird, just six seen. I saw the first at Pennington near Wigan, Greater Manchester back in 19 with a few of the Birding Clams. On that occasion I was so excited over seeing the bird that I left an expensive Barbour coat there.
We all want more views of the bird and continue to search for it for the next two hours. At no time though does it settle, it just keeps going on a circular tour of it's favourite places. One distraction on the bunting chase is provided by the most confiding jack snipe that just lays down in a ditch thinking we can't see it as we stand ten feet from it. It's prostrate form with two very clear mantle braces is comical with it stretched out as flat as it can get with beak on the ground in front of it. What a moment to have left my camera in the tent.
Time to go, I pack the tent in the gale and head back to Lerwick. I am just pushing my injured bike up a steep hill out of the town when I receive a text in capitals from The Oracle....
The Oracle, Phil Andrews, even phones me.
Have you got the message?”
Yes, that's why I am pushing the bike up this hill!”
The wind is punishing and I get as far as Cunningsborough where I camp for the night.
At about one in the morning I am disturbed by some lads making a right racket in a car. Their empty Coca Cola bottles and chip papers are there in the morning. They live hard these Shetland teenagers.

Saturday 15th October fresh to very strong SE cloudy to rain

Pied wheatear is still present so I must get to Scatness as soon as possible. First though I need water. With the amount of effort that is needed to cycle a one gear bike twenty five miles, I am using up my water quicker than usual and I didn't have any left before retiring last night. The toilet block at Cunningsborough saves the day.
I reach Boddam to buy some food, having been tooted at by passing birders on my way, then it's down to Scatness and a feeling of confidence that the rare wheatear is going to be still there. A friend, the brilliant birder High Harrop is on the other side of a dry stone wall by the beach.
Come on Gary. It's still here.”

Pied wheatear, bird number 303 and what superb looking bird. I lie down to watch it as it quickly goes from rock to rock chasing sand flies. A common wheatear comes too close and the pied soon sees it off. Wheatears are one of my favourite bird groups and this bird is a definite highlight of the year; the first rare wheatear I have seen whilst Biking Birding.
The bird flies off along the beach and I follow it. Hugh comes and joins me and I congratulate him on he and Judd finding the recent First for Britain, the Siberian accentor. To hear the story of that bird's finding from the man himself is a humbling and humorous privilege. No expletives used, he couldn't have been excited enough.
Hugh tells me that Roger Rddington, the British Birds magazine editor, had a Siberian stonechat briefly this morning and I text him for directions. From Roger's reply I spend the afternoon searching the thistle beds and sand dunes around Toab and Quendale. No sign of the rare stonechat, I am surprised to be almost slapped in the face by a very brave red admiral butterfly. A goldcrest is by my feet quietly feeding as I video it, always a special birding moment to be graced by the presence of a 'five gram miracle.'
On the way down to the sand dunes I meet a mother with son, Anna and Lucian who have just been clearing the beach of some plastic. These wonderful people deserve a badge at the very least but I have left all of mine in my panniers hidden at Scatness. I take one off my coat and say that they have really given me a great boost by their action. They continue towards Toab and I go around the sand dunes.
No sign of the stonechat, I go back to where I have left my bike. Some farm workers are having a laugh taking turns riding a bike with a badly buckled back wheel.
I find my own less damaged vehicle only to find that Anna and Lucian have left an expensive bar of chocolate in the margarine tub I have attached to the front bag. Wonderful kindness, that will be a donation to the charities.

Later in the evening another great birding friend, Trevor Girling of Norfolk, phones to ask how things are going. He has been concerned at my lack of internet presence lately and the long chat is very greatly appreciated. Brilliant to hear from him. The world of birding brings wonderful friendships.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

OK a Lot to Catch Up on . . . So let's gets going

Massive apologies for the lack of updates. No internet access for almost two weeks. Important target reached so here's the details.

Wednesday 5th October strong SE sunny, cool

Gentle wandering around the island, feeling tired after yesterday's exploration of the cliffs and geos. Barnacle geese are gathering at the most southern tip of the island, Skadan. Around 300 of them are there awaiting a signal for them all to lift into the air and head south.

A large grey US Air Force plane circles the island and heads south itself. Unusual to see here.
A little bunting is at the base of a dry stone wall near to the thistle patch by North Shirva. A male blackcap is sheltering from the cool breeze in amongst the stones.
The pechora pipit has been found again and so the late afternoon is spent at Hjunki Geo watching this rare bird. I video it as it finds a worm. 

Unfortunately for the pechora, a meadow pipit comes in and steals it.

Thursday 6th October Fresh SE-E easing Very sunny day

Sheep Day. A day when all the sheep north of Hill Dyke are gathered together and the lambs sorted out for the crofters. A time when all the islanders and most Bird Observatory staff and a few birders, such as myself, Andrew and John, join forces to corral the sheep into a pen down the hill from Setter.

How naïve are Andrew and I when, once the sheep are collected from Buness and The Parks area opposite Sheep Rock, we think that the work is done. Not so, there is Ward Hill and the geos to be searched, the sheep found and brought down to the pens. I walk, run, jump and chase with Jimmy by my side. Jimmy, who is married to Florrie, is an original crofter whose father, Jimmy was a crofter before him. It is a privilege to be able to call Jimmy and Florrie friends and a privilege to gather the sheep with him. His sheep dog is superb and his obedience is perfect. Still a few sheep escape from the main group and Jimmy goes off around Tynesdie to collect them.

It is hard work and the sweat of Cairan's face as the sheep eventually are penned, says it all.. By now the fresh cooling breeze of early morning has eased to light and with strong sunshine coats can be dispensed with.
Woodcock were disturbed from the heather moorland by all of this activity. I see two myself, large, chunky low-flying birds. Also 9 grey herons are flying over Buness, occasionally cronking as they fly south.
Work done, time to go birding. An olive-backed pipit is rumoured so I head off south hoping to find one of the two I need to reach 300. After three hours of searching I haven't seen the rare pipit, and actually miss both a pechora and a red-throated. 

I do find two little buntings though and it always nice to see lapland buntings and bramblings close to.
Walking back towards the Bird Observatory with the sun almost set, Susannah Parnaby stops in the van to tell me that a red-flanked bluetail has been seen at the far end of Hill Dyke in Gannawark Geo. It is a long walk but I make it up there. More amazingly though is the fact that a birder in a wheelchair is up there thanks to his friends. The strength of such friendship is the best thing of the evening and the fact that the bluetail is missed by all is neither here nor there. Friends.
The walk to the Observatory is in the dark with a crescent Moon setting in the south. There isn't a cloud in the sky. The walk back 'home' later is going to be spectacular with the Milky way leading the way.

Friday 7th October Fresh SE very sunny and warm.

A morning I spend searching around the crofts, fields and dykes watching small. Common migrant. bramblings and lapland buntings are in the thistles at North Shirva.
An olive-backed pipit is found at Dronger, about as far up the north west as you can get. I get up there yet I am not too disappointed when I don't find the rare Siberian bird. 

The view is magnificent with the epic coastline of geos and cliffs stretching to the south. Gannets are still in pairs on the cliffs and there are migrant birds up there; goldcrests, wheatear, meadow pipits and jack and common snipe. A merlin chases a pipit along the cliff edge nearby.
At the observatory in the evening I find out that the pipit has moved to Leerness making that area tomorrow's destination.

Saturday 8th October light to fresh SE Very sunny all day

Sunrise is glorious as I walk along Hill Dyke, t-shirt weather with the need of sun tan lotion. Migrants are in every geo, Siberian chiff chaffs, goldcrests, redwings, song thrushes, blackbirds and robins.
There are butterflies too, couple of red admirals and a painted lady. A silver y moth continues the lepidoptera list.

Reaching North Naaversgill I spot Lee Gregory coming towards me near to Grey Geo. He turns around the other way,not to avoid me, he has seen a bird of interest. I make my way over to where he is. He lifts his camera. He starts to send a text.

Olive-backed pipit, bird number 300.

300. The dream is accomplished. 300 birds in a calendar year, 2016. The Big Green Big Year is now into extreme uncharted territory and the 300 is mine to keep forever. The first British cyclist to reach 300 in the UK.
It's too much and I well up with a few tears. Handshakes and a hug from Lee; I am over the Moon with the fact that the most special birding friend on Fair Isle is here at this moment. 300. I have done it.

Lee is doing North as his day's census route and heads off south to continue his work. I stay wanting to have more views of the pipit that is my 300th bird species for 2016. The fact that the bird is an olive-backed pipit is not lost on me. It has a historic connection being the bird that started my life of twitching with a fantastic group of teenage lads from Wolverhampton. Back in 1984 I was a Secondary school teacher, Coppice High School, Ashmore Park, Wednesfield. There I started a YOC (Young Ornithologist's Club) and three members of the club came with me one weekend day to see an olive-backed pipit in Bracknell, Berkshire. We saw that bird and it is forever a source of delight that one of those boys, Jason Oliver, is now an extremely brilliant birder and very close friend; a leader of The Birding Clams. The Clams contain other great birders from those long off YOC days; Steve Allcott, Tony Barter and Ian Crutchley amongst others. T circle is complete, fate has made the first bird from then my 300th of 2016.
I can't find the pipit and as it is lunch time I sit on top of a high cliff to eat some fruit and watch whatever birds pass.
There is a bird far below on the beach at the base of Leerness Geo, at the end of Grey Geo. It is a flycatcher. I look through my binoculars and my heart starts to race. It has a long white patch on the primary patch! Could it really be a collared. I try to photograph the bird but it is constantly flitting around and staying in the shadows. 

Photographs once achieved with my Canon SX50 are inconclusive but I feel someone should come and have a look. I am just not sure. A collared flycatcher would be a mega,a pied would be just another bird. I phone Lee hoping that he is close but he is at Hjunki, a long way south. I walk back up and over the hills and see Will, a superb birder from Aberdeen. He is walking the stream and once I catch up with him I show him photographs. Pied is his verdict.
Nick Riddiford is the next birder I meet, Collared he says!
I go down to Lower Stonebrek. Two of the three birders there are unsure, the other says pied.
I try to stop a van rushing past us with Cairan and Dave Parnaby inside but they don't stop. Half an hour or so later Dave is passing and he stops. Non-committal, he just asks where I saw it and that Chris Dodds is up there.
Back at the Observatory I show the photograph to Cairan. Collared he says.
Have a look yourself. It's a poor set of photographs taken in an extreme situation. There was no way I could get any closer. 

A bluethroat at Setter gives better views.

Party time, Elena has brought in a bottle of champagne to help celebrate the 300 with friends. Wonderful friends to share a very special and emotional moment.


Done it!

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

October Targets . . .

Tuesday 4th October October Target Birds

Once again I have a spreadsheet made up of the possible Year tick birds that have occurred on Fair Isle in the last eleven years as detailed in their wonderful annual reports.
Each bird has a percentage probability and the average number of year tick birds for October is 8.9. Let's make my target 9 then, optimistic but I have already had 5!

radde's warbler

blyth's reed warbler

red-flanked bluetail

pechora pipit and

barnacle goose.

So what's left? Let's start with the birds I saw last October here on Fair Isle plus there percentage chance:-

Olive-backed pipit (72.7% up to 100% in the last five years)
Well one was seen on the island today so hopefully that will be re-found tomorrow.

Siberian Rubythroat (36.4% but up to 60% in the last five years)
A high chance then of seeing one and I may be greedy but I wish for a male, unlike last year's hard to see female.

OK, now for the other birds that I didn't see on Fair Isle last year but they have been here as follows:-

(81.8% chance)
Little auk

(54.4% chance)
Iceland gull (increases to 100% chance for the last five years)

(45.5% chance)
Arctic redpoll [Snowball please, hornemanni.]

Pallas' grasshopper warbler
White's thrush
[What a pair these two would make!]

Buff-breasted sandpiper [it would be nice to have a Yank]
Black-throated thrush [aah, memories of one nearly in my garden in Redditch in the '90s]

Blyth's pipit
White-rumped sandpiper
Bean goose
Siberian stonechat
Grey-cheeked thrush
Rustic bunting
Sabine's gull

and finally . . .

(9.1%) - fantasy time.....
River warbler
Red-eyed vireo
Blackpoll warbler
Honey buzzard
King eider
Thrush nightingale
Pallas' warbler
Siberian thrush
Pine bunting
Subalpine warbler (since split but no details of which in report)
Hume's yellow-browed warbler

Right, there you have it. My Green Year list at the moment stands at 298 and I am hoping for 4 more birds over the next few weeks here on fair Isle. The winds are south-easterly for the next ten days at least and the wind is set to calm down. Sunshine also for the next ten days, what a time to be on Fair Isle with the weather set fair. Those winds by the way originate from beyond Finland. What will they bring?