After 5 previous visits, I’m planning on 2012 being the granddaddy of them all and will hopefully be spending nearly a month on the isle. Due to the complete lack of T-Mobile or Orange coverage on Foula, I’ll unfortunately not be able to post this until I get home in mid-October. Hopefully by then you’ll know what to expect in this posting, and what rares we managed to find on here this autumn. Or perhaps there will be absolutely nothing and this blog will chart my steady decline into madness and despondency!
The journey north was uneventful, and even the Northlink crossing was calm after the gale force winds of the previous few days. Due to work commitments, I was unable to travel up with my mate Nick Crouch who was to be on Foula for my first week, so instead it was with trepidation that I looked forward to our first meeting on Foula. Was there going to be any news? What had I missed so far? Luckily, the best bird of the last few days was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper that had toured the east and south of the isle, and I managed to catch up with this down on the South Ness. I think this constituted my 4th Buff-breast on Foula, and this must be one of the most regular spots for them in Britain.
Buff-breast, by Nick Crouch
We tried for a Barred Warbler that was hanging around Ham and had been seen early morning, but failed. In previous years, Barreds have tended to linger for several days and been fairly easy to see, so I was quite casual about not seeing this one at first. A mistake. There was no sign of it later that day or the next. It’s now getting quite late into September so I’m guessing I could have missed my chance at Barred Wblr this year.
An acro at Braidfit gave us the run-around for several hours, and we’re still none the wiser about it. Sitting having lunch looking into the garden, we had very brief views of an interesting, quite sandy acro/hippo perch up on the rosa ragosa and then go to ground almost immediately. With views lasting no more than 2 seconds, the jury was out on a specific ID, but we were sufficiently interested to keep vigil. Two hours later and we had managed about a second of further viewing time as it skulked nervously in the bottom of the rosa. Eventually it gave the briefest of views of its front end only and we were able to see that it was a Reed/Marsh Wblr, so there was disappointment and a slight amount of disbelief that our initial views appeared so sandy. We thought it most likely a Marsh, a view also shared by Geoff Atherton who had (unbeknown to us) seen it briefly that morning, but as life was progressing rapidly we decided to leave it and see what else the isle could throw at us. This was soon answered with a big fat nothing.
One of the highlights of a poor week was the Lapland and Snow Buntings that were knocking around in small numbers. They can appear anywhere, but the areas around Ristie and Stremness in the north and the airstrip/Daal and South Ness in the south are particularly favoured. Compared to last year, numbers of Laps were very low, but last year was a record year that saw an early influx from Canada and a peak count of over 120 on Foula. We did well to get over 20 a day in the same week this year. Still, they’re cracking birds not to be sniffed at, and Snow Buntings are always good value.
Tomorrow is the end of Week 1, and sees the departure of Nick and the arrival of Garry Taylor, Gav Thomas, Dan Brown and Bill Aspin for a fortnight on here.
This shows that preparations for the fortnight are well underway!
The 21st saw the departure of Nick and the arrival of Team Foula. I felt really bad for Nick, because as he was leaving the birds were starting to arrive. A Common Rosefinch was found in Ham just before he left, and then as I was waving to the plane as it departed the isle, the Barred Warbler was refound at Ham! Ce la vie. Still, with fresh legs and eyes on the isle, it was time to knock a few rares into the back off the net, and the next few days were simply amazing. In the meantime, we managed to get better views of the presumed Marsh Warbler which had now moved to Niggards, and it did prove to be a Marsh, but one of the most stubbornly skulking birds I’ve ever come across. A situation remedied when it had Mr Taylor’s boot up its arse the following day…
The NW wind of the preceding week died to an imperceptible Force 0-1 on the 22nd, and the view across to Shetland was stunning. These seem to be perfect conditions for arrivals of rares on to Foula, as proved by last year’s Pechora and Arctic Warbler in very similar circumstances. This year we would go even better…
A skulky acro in the Hametoun burn area was found by Kev Shepherd, and after a few organised flushes we were all happy it was a Blyth’s Reed. The uniformity of colour on the upperparts with no rufous rump combined with a weak whirring flight make them actually fairly distinctive and eminently doable in flight, without recourse to emarginations. This individual was quite a brown one, but still showed the richer wing panel so distinctive of Blyth’s. For a nice comparison, the Marsh Warbler a few 100m up the road decided to show better than ever. A picture may appear here sometime soon: http://yorkslister.blogspot.co.uk/
Meanwhile, the Ham yard was hotting up and hosted a showy Bluethroat, a Barred Warbler and at least 5 Yellow-browed Warblers. In fact, there had clearly been a massive arrival of Yellow-broweds, as we ended the day on a total of 24 which is no doubt a gross under-estimate considering we can never bird the cliffs on here very well. At least 7 in Ham were complimented by 6 together in the Punds garden. Our day total of 24 was by far the best of the day anywhere in Britain, and is one of the highest single site counts for anywhere in Britain. I’m guessing that only Fair Isle has beaten it for a site of comparative size? The walk back to Ristie was enlivened by a brief Wryneck at Harrier, which I think is a Foula tick for me. Pretty rare in the autumn, Wrynecks. What would tomorrow bring?
Red-spotted Bluethroat. WIth a white throat.
Yellow-browed Warbler. With an off-white brow.
The 23rd will go down as one of my most exciting days ever. Leaving Ristie I walked the 200m to Trolli Geo and sat down to see what turned up in the fresh SE wind. My answer came immediately with 2 Pied and a single stunning Red-breasted Flycatcher down on the rocks. Caching insects in the surf zone, it even caught a huge sea slater at one point, which is probably not a normal food item it finds in the forests of Finland!
Walking south, Dan “Golden Balls” Brown was slightly ahead and went over to the ruins of Gossameadow. Almost immediately, he called over the radio “I’ve got a Catharus thrush!” Cue instant sprint mode from me and a rather impressive vault over the fence. Almost immediately Dan followed his first message with “it’s a Swainson’s” and I saw it fly onto the fence surrounding the field. Slight panic then set in, but it stayed long enough for me to get decent views and for Dan to rattle off some record shots. It then bombed off over the moor and out of sight. Garry managed to relocate it in the burn, before it flew back towards the ruins at Gossameadow. No sign there, and the by now sizeable crowd (for Foula standards!) of 8 were starting to wonder where it had gone. Thankfully, we relocated it at the entrance to Loch, and it made its way to the ruined croft there and showed well for the rest of the day. My 6th individual of Yank passerine on Foula of 4 species in 5 visits. Not a bad statistic, but one of these days I would like to find one on here!
Swainson’s Thrush. Yankee cracker!
Not even halfway down the isle yet, we carried on to Ham and took in a few Yellow-brows, then carried on to Hametoun. Kev had seen the Blyth’s Reed again in the burn and Dan and I were getting ready to flush it to get pictures when Andrew Grieve radioed that he’d got an interesting hippolais at Braidfit. The three of us made our way over to be greeted by a smiling Andrew, who had clearly come to an exciting conclusion. We spread out to refind it, and Dan was the first to get views and come to an independent identification. It then appeared in front of me and Kev, and it was obviously a Sykes’s. The overall colouration, long tail and long slightly drooping bill were very obvious and immediately ruled out Booted. It was pleasing and satisfying that all 4 of us came to the same conclusion independently, and just goes to show how distinctive Sykes’s can be in the field.
Sykes’s Warbler. Note the really plain tertials.
It helped that it performed brilliantly too, with no view too intimate for this little porn star.
Probably a male!
Unfortunately I spent more time actually watching it than photographing it, so it was very pleasing to get another chance to pap it the following day when Donna relocated it in Ham. It showed amazingly well on the rocks by the harbour and was completely unperturbed by the throng of cameras pointing at it.
Sykes’s Warbler. Small, grey and stunning!
Meanwhile, the saga of the Lesser Whitethroats was developing nicely. Of 3 present on the isle, 2 showed features of halimodendri, with noticeably sandy mantles. A third bird in the Ham irises was very different in that it was greyish above and looked just like curruca. Thinking about it, I’m not sure that I’ve seen curruca on Foula before, as most birds seem to look most like halimodendri. Time will tell what they really are…
Unfortunately, this day, good as it was, was slightly marred by Fair Isle scoring Magnolia Warbler. To score a Swainson’s Thrush, a Sykes’s Warbler and a Blyth’s Reed and to be the 2nd best Shetland island that day was a bitter pill to swallow. Foula is crying out for a true mega (last year’s dead Sibe Blue Robin notwithstanding) and we really felt like Fair Isle had stolen our bird. You can just never rule out Fair Isle for really spoiling your day!
The 24th was a great day for one of the team. The brisk SE-ESE wind encouraged a visit to Da Sneck o Da Smaalie, a cleft in the cliff that looks monstrous for rares in the right weather conditions – namely strong easterly quarter winds that force birds to shelter over the cliffs. I took the easier route along the east cliffs, through Ham and then along the Daal to the Sneck, seeing not a great deal. Dan went over Da Kame and found a Blyth’s Pipit! It flew up the steep bank over him and promptly disappeared over the other side, never to be seen again. If it was most other people I wouldn’t believe it, but Dan has previous form with the species, having driven over one on a Welsh mountain a few years ago! Admittedly this time his observation wasn’t mechanically assisted, but with loads of foreign experience under his belt too, we all know that we’ve missed a mega here.
Still, I managed to score a Yellow-browed, 8 Goldcrests, 2 Blackcaps, 2 Pied Flys and a Redstart down the Sneck, so that was quite nice too.
Meanwhile, the Blyth’s Reed continued its residency in the Hametoun burn and Garry and Bill managed to dig out a rather nice Olive-backed Pipit in Harrier. It was pretty smart to finally see this on the walk home in the roadside ditch where it showed well.
The 25th had a brisk F6 NE wind dropping to an F3, and it was rares-ville again. Working the main iris bed in Ham, myself, Dan, Gav and Bill flushed a 2nd Blyth’s Reed. It showed slightly better than the Hametoun bird (which was still present and as elusive as ever) and provided a great education in the flight identification of acrocephalus.
Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Easy in flight.
The Sykes’s was also still present, and putting on a good show in Ham.
Dan and I managed to finally get some half decent in-flight pics of the ever-elusive Hametoun Blyth’s Reed. Maybe not quite as distinctive as the Ham bird due to it being a browner bird overall, it still showed the whirring weak flight and uniform upperparts of a Blyth’s, plus the wing panel was obvious in brief perched views on the fence. Hopefully in the bag…
Another Blyth’s Reed in flight. Still easy!
Hametoun produced the goods the next day too, when Dan, Bill and I flushed a new Olive-backed Pipit in the canary grass between Punds and Niggards. It felt like a different bird to the Harrier one immediately, and photos proved it was different, having a stronger malar and thicker, bolder breast streaks.
The teams haul at the end of Week 1 was: Swainson’s Thrush, Sykes’s Warbler, Blyth’s Pipit, Blyth’s Reed Warbler (2), Olive-backed Pipit (2), Richard’s Pipit, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Wryneck, Barred Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Common Rosefinch and a peak day count of 24 Yellow-browed Warblers. Only Fair Isle beat us this week. Admittedly, they beat us in style, but I’d still rather have been here to be honest.
Well, the winds gone into the west over the last few days, and the birding has slowed considerably. After two days stuck in Ristie due to the poor weather and lack of birding motivation, I ventured out for half a day today. Still nothing new in, but the Blyth’s Reed and Richard’s Pipit are apparently still in Hametoun. There seems to be plenty of tackle turning up on Shetland Mainland, although Fair Isle seems to be suffering like us. Isolated islands are fantastic in good conditions, but there is little scope for discovering birds that have been hiding away for several days like there is on Mainland, purely due to its size and variety of habitat. Mustn’t grumble though, considering our first week! It did give us time to indulge in some very important, nay, seminal work on the various attributes of the ladies in Zoo’s “100 Best Boobs in Britain”. The obvious error in counting (most of the 100 ladies were sporting the traditional two breasts…), didn’t detract from the pleasure gained from critically assessing the pros and cons of each of the 100 contenders.
Employing a scoring system more complex than Rugby League, we ended up with a final top three featuring:
Jess Kingham (don’t know anything about her apart from that she has a fantastic chest. And appears to smile a lot. So probably likes her job a lot), Sabine (there are now two stunning products of evolution featuring the name of an obscure German naturalist, only one of which is likely to be seen by me in north easterlies at Huttoft bank) and Kelly Brook (the perennial favourite, she’s still holding firm at the top of the charts. Just don’t mention the Big Breakfast…). Our overall winner was the delectable Kelly Brook. I’m sure she’ll be pleased!
Sea watching from Foula is generally like pulling teeth, just with less reward from the tooth fairy at the end of it. But in south westerly’s it’s one of the more attractive options after you’ve spent the last two hours trying to unsuccessfully download the 14mb email attachment of pics of your best mates new baby. Secreting myself in the rocks below Ristie, I counted Fulmars passing at c2120/hr, and a Foula tick in the shapely form of a Sooty Shearwater was mingled in with a raft of maalies not far offshore. A blue Fulmar also moved around the isle. Some nice Purple Sandpipers accompanied me in my lonely vigil, and a Grey Seal rippled maggot-like into the sea when I appeared over the rocks and disturbed its slumber.
After our success with the inflight identification of unstreaked acros, you’d think nothing would be too much for this team. However, today proved very frustrating as we’ve mostly been looking at Snipe. You can tell it’s gone a bit quiet! Dan and I flushed about 40 Snipe from the Hametoun marsh area, one of which was strikingly grey. In fact, it was almost silvery! It did three passes with the small flock it was with before disappearing over the ridge and not being seen again We were pretty fired by the colour of this, as we’d checked and double checked it against adjacent Snipe on three occasions. Even better, both Gav and Ken independently saw this flock and the grey bird with them and were also struck by its appearance. Four observers, potential first for Scotland, no photos. Shit. We’d been so busy looking at the bird we hadn’t even raised our cameras. A schoolboy error, and probably one we’ll always regret, as there was no chance of accurately assessing the underwing without photos.
The walk home was enlivened by a rather smart Little Bunting at Harrier that steadfastly refused to be flushed. Our first new decent bird in a few days has given rise to renewed hopes for tomorrow, especially as the wind has dropped right off and it’s gone pretty clear again. Excellent Foula conditions…
Little Bunting & Big Chicken
What a difference a day makes. An early morning new Garden Warbler and a Pied Wagtail calling on the roof at Ristie encouraged an early departure to explore the isle for whatever delights awaited. This enthusiasm was rewarded with a 2nd Garden Warbler and a passage of Greylags. Top banana. We did go back down to Hametoun to look for the grey snipe. While walking through the marsh, I flushed a snipe that didn’t warrant a second look, so I didn’t. Dan took some practice shots of it to get ready for when the grey one got up (it never did!), and then the shit hit the fan. Reviewing the shots on the back of the camera, Dan saw that this bird showed extensive barring and no white bases to the underwing coverts – a definite Wilson’s feature. We checked the image again, and then looked at it some more, and it still looked good. With heavy rain now set in, we retired to the shelter of a shed and considered the options. None of us had really seen it in the field. I’d dismissed it within a second as it wasn’t the obvious grey bird of yesterday, so all we had was a single image that showed the underwing and one against the sky that showed the upperwing which we couldn’t do anything with on the back of the camera. Mindful of the enormity of the claim, we thought the best option was to try and alert the Shetland birders about the possibility of it being Wilson’s, so we managed to get a copy of the picture Facebooked to Micky Maher who managed to send it to Roger Riddington. Complicated or what! When we got home with no further birds under the belt, we put the picture on the laptop for the first time and started to critically analyse it.
Hopefully the pic will be on Punkbirder soon enough
My personal feeling is that this is a faeroensis, albeit a very extreme one. There was nothing about the size and jizz in the field that warranted a second look, and I would have expected Wilson’s to look a tad smaller (but views were ultra-brief, so not really worth an opinion) and there does seem to be a slight belly bulge typical of a subtly larger snipe. Also, the rather rich colour to the fore-flanks and what can be seen of the upperparts are typical faeroensis. Speaking to Martin Garner, he has also had several “100% definite galinago” showing barring on the underwing like this bird, so I’m hopeful he’ll be able to dig out shots of these for reference. This bird should have ramifications for the ID of Wilson’s in a vagrant context, and it’s not something I’m convinced has been addressed properly. If only 1 in 500 faeroensis show this underwing pattern, they will still be more common than delicata here and they may not show up in museum or photo collections. Conversely, Ash Fisher seems to like this bird as showing good Wilson’s features, and he knows more about these than most (me certainly), so I guess the only thing to do is to watch this space. If it was a Wilson’s, can I tick it? The irony of all this is that there may well have been a pukka Wilson’s on the isle, but that grey bird was never seen again…
Oct 4th. The weather is shite. Decided to read my book and stay in bed, then have a full English breakfast about 11am. This was followed by a team drinking session that lasted from about 2pm-1am. Not done that since I was a student, so feeling quietly pleased that there weren’t any nasty side-effects. Preached a little from the Bible (seriously, if you want a laugh, read Leviticus. Did you know that, as a Bible following Christian, you’re not allowed to eat (or even touch!) pork. Or rabbit. Or Red and Black Kites, eagles, vultures, ravens, Osprey, gulls, storks or Hoopoe – these are all specifically mentioned in the Bible, amazingly enough. Not sure what the poor Hoopoe ever did to offend God!?!), debated birds a lot and refrained from actually looking at birds a lot.
Team Foula was disbanded on Oct 5th, as Garry, Gav, Dan and Bill all left the isle to explore pastures new. Garry, Bill & Gav to do some birding on Shetland for a couple of days before heading home, while Dan was going to spend a few hours on Bressay before heading back to Glasgow. I suspect the Bressay list will have increased by at least one by the end of the day; such is the power of golden balls.
Team Foula relaxing. L-R: Garry Taylor, Me, Dan Brown, Gav Thomas, Bill Aspin.
Bill & Garry in repose
Gav and a Blackbird
Dan Dolittle and some chickens
The highlight of today for me was the small flock of islandica Common Redpolls at Leraback. A rostrata from Greenland had joined them on the 3rd, a pretty clear cut example of one. Today though, the flock had dwindled slightly and there was no sign of the obvious rostrata. The photos below show a selection of individuals of islandica, and the last two show a rather heavy thickset bird that could be a small pale rostrata, but I guess is more likely a large islandica.
I’m joined for my final week in Ristie by Mark Wilkinson, Kris Gibb and Ken Shaw, all decorated veterans of past Foula campaigns. Day 1 of week 4 has not started well, as I’m stuck in writing this and editing photos due to a howling NW gale and heavy showers that, looking out of the window, may only get worse. Hopefully the weather will abate a little after lunch; I’d like to get down the east cliffs to see if there is anything sheltering down them and to try and get decent images of the four borealis type Eiders that are present. Kris, being of much hardier Scottish stock than a weedy Midlander like me has ventured out. No news from him yet… Mark is laid up in bed with a mystery bug. Hopefully it’s not related to the reappearance of Foula Mouse in Ristie. Rather like foxes and magpies, it seems that taking one out only encourages another to take its place. Foula Mouse should not be confused with Finger Mouse, the star of 80’s children’s TV. Foula Mouse differs in that it would likely object to having a finger stuck up its bum.
After an afternoon spent sheltering down various geos from the wind there is little to report. Eiders have declined noticeably, and there was no sign of any of the borealis types. The only migrant I saw down the cliffs was a fiery crested Goldcrest. Intriguingly, Andrew has seen a chat-like thing down at Punds very briefly and from the back end only. All he can say on the very poor view was that it was Bluethroat-like but not a Bluethroat. Perhaps it had a small red throat instead…
Oct 7th has arrived, and so have the westerly’s. A trek down to Punds revealed nothing more than a Blackcap and no sign of the hoped for Luscinia/Catharus, but a Sedge Warbler on the way down at Ham was new for the trip and gave hope for new arrivals today. Turned out that was the only new arrival! Finally went to the cemetery to see the Whinchat that’s been knocking about for several days and got some nice pics of it. The light was lovely and it took to perching on picturesque lichen covered headstones, so it’s a shame there wasn’t a better photographer than me on hand to pap it.
The final couple of days were very slow, and the wind has set into the west. The highlights were getting better views of the borealis type Eiders down near South Ness, along with a juv Glaucous Gull there and a female Gadwall on Mill Loch. Two Foula ticks!
Bottom right bird is a drake borealis, with orange bill and prominent sails. Bottom left drake is a probable borealis, with orange bill but slightly smaller sails. The slightly delayed moult out of eclipse may be a borealis feature?
Drake borealis. The orange bill is prominent here, and note the concave angle of the black feathering extending down the culman, forming a larger lobe/process/top bill bit.
Drake borealis on right, possible immature drake on right. Note the bill colour and the hint of sails developing on the immature.
Interesting orange-billed bird. No sails though.
Same as above. Note the good angle of the black culman feathering and the intensity of the bill colour.
Classic borealis at the back, partial one at the front.
With the forecast predicting near gale force south easterlies on Friday, we decided to bail early and make a run south. I would have liked to have stayed on given the forecast obviously, but seeing as we need to be off on the Friday evening ferry to Aberdeen and the plane may not fly if the winds materialise, it makes sense to go. Don’t want to miss going to St Agnes next week…