Foula and Shetland, Sep-Oct 2013

Foula Sep-Oct 2013. The final frontier?

Not quite, but you can see it from here! This is proving to be a strange year, as most of the usual crew have dropped out for one reason or another. One is trying to mop up all the work left behind by those of us out birding this autumn while another is working on Spoon-billed Sandpipers in Asia. Never mind, it might leave more chance of self-finding something monstrous myself, but it does mean that the isle will be much harder to cover, especially considering that Kevin Shepherd is also taking a year off from Foula. We’ll see how we get on, but it’s going to be very quiet on here. At least Ken Shaw will be with us for the first 6 days, so we should be able to cover the main spots every day or every other day.

I travelled up to Shetland with Bill Aspin, and we arrived in a wet and windy Lerwick on Sept 18th. One of the first birds we saw was a grotty eclipse drake Ring-necked Duck we twitched on Loch of Clickimin, but at least our Shetland account was opened with a decent scarce. We were staying over on the west side, in Walls. Don’t ask why, but the Voe House bod in Walls was a nice place to stay, and the west mainland has bags of potential to find your own stuff. I was due to give a talk to the Shetland Bird Club in Lerwick that evening on my travels in Georgia and Armenia, which despite some file numbering issues, went well. I’ve always thought of myself as a birder with a camera rather than a photographer, so I was slightly nervous about displaying my efforts to an audience that contained some excellent photographers, and I’ve never done a talk on quite such a big screen before, but all went well.

Paul's talk to SBC

Trying to get to grips with technology. It took me most of the talk to realise i could use the mouse as a pointer!

The following day we did a spot of birding with Rory Tallack in west Mainland, and Rory showed us a couple of superb looking places where we found a brace of Yellow-browed Warblers. However, things might be different when we got off Foula in a fortnights time…  The afternoon turned into a bit of a twitch, after Brydon Thomason went and found a Baltimore Oriole on Unst! Bill and I were shopping in Tesco in preparation for Foula when the text came through. We considered leaving the full trolley abandoned in the aisle, but it wasn’t a tick for either of us so we finished the shop, drove the food over to Walls to drop off at the Foula ferry and then high-tailed it north to Unst. Just after getting on the ferry to Yell, we got a text from Rory saying there was no further sign, but we decided to continue anyway. Arriving at Halligarth, it was evident that it had most likely gone, but just as we were contemplating where to start the search, Paul Harvey screeched up, shouted something and then drove off at high speed. There were two options here. Either he had just relocated the oriole somewhere, or there was a tsunami bearing down on us. Either option entailed a rapid retreat from Halligarth, so we jumped in the car a la Dukes of Hazard, and sped off after the silver dot that was PVH. And rapidly lost him. I dithered, turned around and went to the post office which is where I thought it would be. Bizarrely, so did most other people (or were they following me?) and we started to search the hedge behind the post office. I looked around and said, “Where’s Roger?”, as I knew he had left Halligarth before me. In a slightly reminiscent scene from “Life of Brian”, someone looked up and pointed into the distance and said “there’s Roger’s car”, so we all jumped back in the cars and the wacky races recommenced as we put our little 1.2 litre Ford Ka through its full range of revs, gears and braking capacity in the short 500m dash to the garden Paul and Roger were looking in. As I slowed to park up Paul said “it’s here!” and was clearly watching it as I went past him. In the seconds (or more likely several light years) that then elapsed between stopping the car, getting out and getting next to Paul, the bird flew behind the house and wasn’t seen again except for Rory having a brief view of it flying over him going west. We searched high and low, and we also looked in some gardens, but it was clear that a dip was on the cards. Only about half a dozen people connected, so if you want to see a picture of this beast, check out  We did see a couple of Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers, lots of flyover Snow Buntings and the injured resident Common Crane, but this was a dip on a grand scale. Still, I was chuffed for Brydon that others had eventually seen it and even obtained a gripping photo. There’s nothing worse than finding a good bird only for it to disappear before others can share it with you.

Paul French Rory Talloch Tresta Shetland 19th Sept 2013

Birding in Tresta garden with Rory

Fri 20th – We arrived on Foula today and were met by Ken Shaw at the airstrip. The winds are said to be SW-W for the foreseeable future, so we were not expecting anything of any real interest in our first day. However, a foray around Ham produced a lovely Little Bunting that had been around for a little while (along with a second bird we didn’t see), a Yellow-browed Warbler and a new Bluethroat. The Bluethroat just appeared on the Ham yard wall after we had been sat watching the yard for a while, then proceeded to feed along the stream. Always good value, Bluethroats. It was great to meet up with Geoff and Donna Atherton again, and Bill went all Disney on me by feeding the garden birds.

Little Bunting, Ham (15)

Little Bunting

Bluethroat, Ham (20) Bluethroat, Ham (28)Bluethroat

Blackbird (3) Bill with Blackbird (6)

Bill and a Blackbird

Geoff and Donna then showed me pics of a strange acro that had been present in the Ham yard since Sept 6th. It showed a strange combination of rather pallid upperparts but with apparent rusty tones to the rump, long supercillium extending well beyond the eye, dark centred tertials with contrasting pale fringes long primary projection and grey legs. They felt it was likely a Reed Warbler, and so did I based on the photos and the early arrival date. There has been no sign of the two Pectoral Sandpipers down on South Ness today, but there was a large count of Snow Buntings. We logged over 300, mainly along the coast between Ristie and Ham.

Snow Buntings (39) Snow Bunting (7)

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting (dead) (7)

Dead Snow Bunting

Saturday 21st – what a day! There doesn’t seem to be many migrants arriving, and it also seems as if many of the Snow Buntings have left so I’m glad we got a decent count yesterday. However, I clapped eyes on the acro in the Ham yard today for the first time, and it’s a Blyth’s Reed! The only slightly odd feature is the apparent long primary projection, but the overall colour tones are spot on for Blyth’s as is the rather weak and delicate structure. The photos show it all really. This is a very early autumn record of Blyth’s in Britain, and Geoff’s notes show that he first saw it on the 4th.  Foula is always pushing the boundaries!

Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (73) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (76) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (47) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (48) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (82) emarginations Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (22) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (26) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (46) Blyth's Reed Warbler, Ham (19)

Blyth’s Reed Warbler, including my annual flight shot

Also in the garden are an eastern Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow-browed Warbler and Little Bunting.

Lesser Whitethroat 1 (18) Lesser Whitethroat 1 (40)

blythi Lesser Whitethroat?

After the Ham Yard, we headed down to the South Ness to try and catch up with the two Pec Sands. Geoff & Donna had relocated them this morning, so we headed down and soon found them in their usual spot around the windmills. Luckily they have had more sense than a needletail and have thus far avoided the turbines. They also showed rather nicely.

Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (36) Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (25) Pectoral Sandpiper, South Ness (54)

Pectoral Sandpipers

Barred Warbler, Manse (1)

Barred Warbler

Sunday 22nd – still westerly, or perhaps north westerly today, so decided to catch up on some work before going out. Then it started to rain so haven’t yet left the house and its now 15:17hrs. Still, I need a day off occasionally and I’ve been birding pretty much constantly since late August. Time for another cuppa before going out at least… I could actually update those interested on the new developments at Ristie. There is a new kitchen, the annex has been completely refurbished and the wardrobes have been taken away. There’s a lot more space here now, although the kitchen will always be small. The new cooker is a massive improvement, but most importantly we can now turn on the bathroom light without shorting out the entire house!

Ristie cottage (1) Ristie cottage (3)

New Ristie!

Monday 23rd – the day dawned shitty and stayed shitty for the duration. However, with the wind swinging round to the east, I knew that staying in Ristie and beginning the massive task of deleting and editing photos was a risky business. Ken also stayed in until about 3pm, then decided to have a look around the cliffs near Ristie. Despite the constant drizzle, Bill had ventured out this morning like the stalwart he is, and when the radio crackled into life about 3:30pm, I feared the worst. However, it was Geoff who had kindly driven north to collect Ken and myself as they had refound the Citrine Wagtail they had had very brief views of on the 20th and Bill had seen fly over him calling on the 21st. We then went to the coast just north of the harbour and soon saw the bird in question distantly feeding around the rock pools. Distant views were alarming as we couldn’t see an ear covert surround on a clearly grey and white wagtail, plus the supercillium looked strikingly long and square ended. I took some poor photos which seemed to confirm this, and I started to get quite excited by the possibility of it being an “Eastern” Yellow Wagtail. It was very mobile and skittish, and called on a couple of occasions when it was flushed – a classic short buzzy flava call, with lots of z’s in it. I felt it was a touch short for a Citrine call, which further cemented the idea of Eastern Yellow Wagtail in my mind.

Citrine Wagtail, Ham (15)

eastern flava?

I finally managed to get decent views of it as dusk was settling over us, and it was immediately apparent that I’d made a mistake. It was a Citrine Wagtail. The ear covert surround was thin, but it was complete. When the bird hunched up, the surround disappeared completely and the ear coverts merged into the mantle, giving a false impression of Yellow Wagtail. The ear covert surround made all the other pieces slot into place, as the pale centred ear coverts and black bill were all Citrine features. The final confirmation for me came when it took flight of its own accord and flew a long way inland, presumably on its regular path to its roost site, giving a longer flight call with the classic Citrine buzz to it. Certainly a lesson to spend more time actually looking at a bird rather than relying on crappy pictures.

Citrine Wagtail, Ham (47)

Citrine Wagtail, same as above

As a footnote, we’ve just learnt that the Baltimore Oriole has been relocated on Unst, back at Halligarth. If it stays another 11 days I’ll be happy! The forecast for the foreseeable future also looks very tasty, with easterly quarter winds interspersed with the odd bit of west. Exciting times, and the rares have already started to drop into Shetland and Orkney. What will tomorrow bring? If it’s dry with decent visibility, we should score…

Tuesday 24th – We didn’t score. A Red-breasted Flycatcher was new in, and the Citrine Wagtail and Blyth’s Reed are still present. The Ham yard was the place to be today, with a Red-breasted Flycatcher, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, 3 Common Rosefinch and 2 Yellow-browed Warblers all in there at once. In fact, it took me a few minutes to sift through the scarce to find a Blackcap! But no hoped for rarity. A Turtle Dove at the school was my first in Britain this year, a sad reflection on their freefall to extinction in this country.

Common Rosefinch (11)

Common Rosefinch flock

Yellow-browed Warbler (7) Yellow-browed Warbler

Yellow-browed Warbler

Blackcap (5)


Turtle Dove (2)

Turtle Dove

We also found a Great Spotted Woodpecker right at the southern tip of the isle, at South Ness. It flew in from the sea or rocks, and then spent a while clinging to the metal antennae tower and some fence posts before heading off again. Amazing to see such a bird in this setting!

Great Spotted Woodpecker, South Ness (25) Great Spotted Woodpecker, South Ness (21)

Great Spotted Woodpecker at South Ness. The local Rock Pipit was not happy!

Paul French Ken Shaw Foula Graveyard 24th Sept 2013

Ken Shaw and me checking out the cemetery

Wednesday 25th – On a clear day you can see Fair Isle from here. The small lump of rock poking over the south eastern horizon is a long way from here, but the effects can be felt. They had a superb day today, with multiple rare arrivals. We waved goodbye to Ken who left the isle and managed to discover nothing new at all. Three Yellow-brows in the south could be new, but could also be the birds from Ham venturing further afield. The Red-breasted Flycatcher has disappeared as has the Citrine Wagtail, but the stalwart Blyth’s Reed Warbler continues to show well. The Turtle Dove was picked up moribund and looks set to die overnight tonight. It brings home the perils of migration and what these birds go through. Anyway, the forecast is excellent for Shetland in general, but as we find it difficult to know what conditions will produce what for Foula, the jury is still out on what the next few days will bring. Undoubtedly Fair Isle will score again, but will we get a taste of the action…???

Rock Pipit (2)

Rock Pipit

Thursday 26th – …not today we won’t! An increase in Yellow-browed Warblers to 13 couldn’t disguise our inability to find something better. There seems to have been a clear out of migrants, with no sign of the Blyth’s Reed all day and only one Rosefinch seen. Even Meadow Pipits were in short supply as we battled our way through a pretty quiet day. The weather was excellent, with almost still conditions and perfect visibility – all of the detail in the cliffs on Shetland stood out and we could see the whole west coast of Fair Isle – but nothing drifted in. In fact, “bird of the day” was a Minke Whale that we spied due east of Ham. It’s due to turn a touch more southerly tomorrow, so perhaps a change in the weather will do us good? If not, I’ll have to endeavour to get the perfect Rock Pipit photo! Our order from the shop turned up in typically eclectic style. Ordering over the phone from a small store has its limitations. We asked for some cereal bars and two rice crispie bar things turned up. Asking for broccoli resulted in a white cabbage appearing, and there was no sign of the hoped for bottle of Southern Comfort. Bread costs £1.72 a loaf, but at least they do box everything up and put it on the boat for us.

Yellow-browed Warbler (16) Yellow-browed Warbler (17)

Yellow-browed Warblers

Yellow-browed Warbler (22.1)

Yellow-browed Warbler on the cliffs with Rock Pipit

Friday 27th – I had a slow start today and worked my way down the east cliffs to Ham. The theory being that the cliffs had not been done in several days, so there could have been anything down there. Bird of the walk was a rather pale and small looking Wren that was most likely a nominate race European bird, but it was at the bottom of a large geo and disappeared into the boulder beach.  If I’m reduced to stringing Wrens, you can imagine how quiet things are. Arriving at Ham, one of the Yellow-browed Warblers was still flitting spritely around the yard, and a Great Spotted Woodpecker appeared in the sycamores. It then flew onto one of the wooden yoals slowly rotting in the grass. Yoals are a traditional Shetland small fishing boat, and this one provided the ‘pecker with plenty of hammering opportunities, but absolutely no food. It looked ill, with its eyes on the edge of closing and at one point it even fell off the boat. It was completely unconcerned by my presence a few meters away, which is always a bad sign. Some of these migratory species, such as Turtle Dove and Great Spotted Woodpecker really don’t do well on Shetland. Donna had some pre-prepared fat and nut balls for feeding the sparrows in winter, so took one down to it. Whether it finds it and starts feeding from it is one matter, and it may have even gone too far already

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (9) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (16) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (38) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (58) Great Spotted Woodpecker, Ham (56)

Great Spotted Woodpecker attacking a boat

On a lighter note, a stunning moulting drake Long-tailed Duck was in the harbour.  I managed to crawl along the pier to get near enough to get some pleasing shots, and it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to a Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck (140)

Long-tailed Duck, moulting adult drake

I got back to Ristie just after dark, shortly followed by an excited Bill who had just found a Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll in Ham. The photos (well, video), are conclusive, so tomorrow’s task is to relocate it. The last one I saw on here was 2009, so I hope we can find it.

Saturday 28th – The day dawned to the tune of rain beating against the skylight, and a heavy drizzle continued well into the late morning. Low cloud gave way to mist, and visibility was reduced to 200m at the most. I left Ristie after lunch and caught up with Bill at the school. We then did Ham together and walked down to Hametoun. It was, for the most part, pretty birdless. We did have 13 Yellow-browed Warblers between us, but they are by far the commonest autumn warbler on here now, so don’t really count as a scarcity anymore. Still, they are stunning to watch, and we had a small flock of four at Biggins.

Walking back via Ham again, a new Rosefinch showed well and the pecker is looking distinctly perkier after it has clearly found the nuts and fat left out for it by Geoff & Donna. After enjoying the antics of the woodpecker chasing off Blackbirds and watching the ferry get hoisted into its mooring out of the water, I decided to upload a few photos to Facebook using the only accessible Wi-Fi on the island – at the school. Two photos in, I heard a redpoll fly over me. A deep, throaty redpoll! I couldn’t see it in the thick mist and failing light, but radioed Bill who thankfully was nearly at the school, and he immediately picked up two redpolls sat on a fence line near the old school house. One was a Common, but the other was huge and white, dwarfing its cousin! They quickly flew off low down the road towards the Ham bridge, but we relocated them both roosting in the angelica. It was as if they were using the flower heads as umbrellifers! We managed to get close to the completely unconcerned birds, and the trusty 7D managed to perform, even in extreme low light. My last Hornemann’s Redpoll was in 2009, so it was excellent to catch up with this one. Interestingly, it appeared in Ham at the same time last night, so it’s anyone’s guess where it’s spending the day feeding, but I would imagine it’s out in the peat banks somewhere.

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (1) Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (29) Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll, Ham (27)

Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll

Walking back to Ristie in the dark, a near disaster struck when, without warning, there was a clatter on the road and I looked down to see the afore mentioned 7D lying face up on the tarmac! It had somehow detached itself from the lens and dropped to the floor. I hurriedly picked it up and fixed it back onto the 100-400 lens, and hoped for the best. Testing it out back in Ristie, it seems there is no obvious damage and everything seems to be working ok. No idea why it fell off, but I’ll be keeping a periodic eye on it in future.

Tomorrow should see the start of the forecast strong south easterlies. While these are the much hoped for perfect winds for Shetland (and Fair Isle), they don’t seem to produce the really good stuff on Foula. We’re just too sheltered by Shetland, but I’m sure something will get through. Hopefully the birding will improve, and I’ll be happy with an increase in diversity. Plus a Siberian Flycatcher obviously…!!!

Sunday 29th – Early morning rain and strong SSW winds were not exactly what we had in mind, but the rain soon stopped and we headed out into a gale. This gradually swung round to the south east through the morning and actually dropped off to a nice light breeze. Walking south through Harrier and Ham, it was evident that the much anticipated arrival of migrants just hadn’t happened. There was nothing new at all. The regular Jack Snipe was still in Harrier and just one Yellow-browed Warbler remained at Burns. Ham was hard work, but at least the Great Spotted Woodpecker seems to have perked up no end on its new diet of fat and peanuts kindly provided by the Athertons. Maybe it will make it south after all?

As we made it to Hametoun, I had a fantastic close experience with a young male Merlin. It just sat there as I crept closer, taking pictures. It would stare at me for a few seconds, decide that I wasn’t a threat and go back to preening or studying the landscape for prey. When I was a kid, Merlins were always my favourite bird, and they have lost none of their appeal as I’ve got older and seen many more of them.

Merlin (169) Merlin (236) Merlin (253)


The canary grass was as devoid of birds as ever, but as we rounded the houses at Biggins a couple of Brambling were creeping around in the grass and I saw a small bunting feeding unobtrusively near them. A Little Bunting! It proved very skittish and unapproachable, but we still managed a few record shots.

Little Bunting, Biggins (34)

Little Bunting

South Ness was quite productive, in a Foula sense. Descending right to the end of the ness, as far south as you can go and remain on Foula, I came across a group of waders. The final tally was 13 Purple Sandpipers, plus a Sanderling and two Knot. Believe it or not, but Knot was a Foula tick for me! Ahh, Foula listing. Is it possible for a birder to go somewhere and not keep a list? I reckon I’m the 6th or 7th highest Foula lister, but rapidly approaching the top 5 echelons. I need to do a spring trip for the likes of Rustic Bunting, Icterine Warbler and Puffin! I also need to get a life!

Knot (16)


Monday 30th – The last day in September was also the very first day I have made it to the Post Office before it closes at 11am. And that was only after a concerted march from Ristie to Ham, bypassing Harrier. Luckily, Bill was on the case in Harrier, so I brought my postcards with an uneasy feel that I was handing Bill a Bluetail on a plate. As it turned out, neither of us found a Bluetail. Ham was devoid of new migrants, but given the strong SE winds, I thought it was prudent to spend some time around the sheltered Ham valley before working my way north along the east cliffs and checking the sheltered geos along the way. This excellent plan was interrupted when Bill radioed with news of Long-eared Owl and Stonechat at the Manse! I grabbed a lift with Geoff & Donna, and we arrived to see Bill standing within mere meters of the owl in the Manse garden. Which promptly flushed when I did my worst creeping up to a bird ever. Sorry Bill! Luckily it didn’t go far, and we all enjoyed superb views of it over the next 30 mins or so as it sheltered in the lee side of peat cuttings. Hopefully it avoided the attentions of the local Bonxies until nightfall and it could beat a retreat to somewhere more sensible. The Stonechat also showed well, and steadfastly refused to be turned into anything rare.

Long-eared Owl (1) Long-eared Owl (4) Long-eared Owl (44) Long-eared Owl (113) Long-eared Owl (83)

Long-eared Owl

Paul French Geoff Atherton LEO Teachers Garden Foula 30th Sept 2013

Geoff and I photographing the owl

Working our way south, we approached Biggins hoping to relocate the Little Bunting. Firstly, a Robin appeared under a derelict trailer and while I was watching that I heard Bill say “Short-toed Lark!” I moved my bins a fraction to have a lovely Short-toed Lark fill my view. That’ll teach me for staring at Robins! The lark showed really well over the next hour or so, and remained faithful to a discrete area around the house.

Short-toed Lark (123) Short-toed Lark (19)Short-toed Lark

And that was about it for the day really. A few other new species for the trip list came in, but nothing of note. Oh yeah, I did manage to make it back to the north cliffs to stare into a sheltered geo for a few minutes at dusk. A Robin greeted me. It felt so rare as it hopped around on the boulder beach that I couldn’t resist taking a few record shots at ISO stupidly high at 1855hrs. Good practice for when the big one does arrive down there…

Tuesday 1st Oct – The wind is increasing in strength, so after a foray around the northern geos where we had a Great Spotted Woodpecker in off the sea and Bill saw a few migrants in Soberlie Geo, we marched south through Harrier, bypassed Ham and went straight to Biggins. Bear in mind that a march on here involves lots of birding and a hunched hike into a near gale head wind!

Great Spotted Woodpecker, Trolli Geo (7)

Great Spotted Woodpecker in Trolli geo

So it was that we arrived at Biggins around midday and soon relocated both the Short-toed Lark and Little Bunting, although neither were very co-operative today. We decided to have lunch sitting down the first major geo up from South Ness, and immediately found a Red-breasted Flycatcher. We settled down to watch this for a while and managed a few atmospheric shots of it. Interestingly, it shows a distinct peachy throat at some angles. This may suggest a slightly older (2nd cal yr?) male, but then the distinct buffy tertial and covert tips suggest a 1st yr. What does it mean? No idea.

Red-breasted Flycatcher (2) Red-breasted Flycatcher (5)Red-breasted Flycatcher (11)

Red-breasted Flycatcher (9)

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Bill Paul French South Ness Foula 30th Sept 2013

Bill and me at South Ness

Paul French South Ness Foula 1st Oct 2013

Me at South Ness, with Da Noup in the background. Think I’m actually watching the Red-breasted Flycatcher at this point

After enjoying this, we headed slowly north again, checking all the crofts in Hametoun for the umpteenth time without seeing anything out of the ordinary, and spent some time with Geoff & Donna enjoying a cuppa, a chocolate digestive and a tale or two of life on Foula.

We decided to walk back north along the east cliffs, checking the sheltered geos and rocks along the way. This proved a good move at the back of Stremness when we found a Grey Wagtail. Ok, so not a rarity or anything, but another Foula tick for me and much appreciated it was too. Also a Foula tick was a Razorbill that was off Ruscar, but I’ll gloss over that one!

The last hour or so of light was spent in Trolli (aka Cave) Geo, and we had a great time. Nothing scarce, but a Carrion Crow came in been harassed by two Hoodies, four Siskin landed next to us, a Jack Snipe came in off the sea over our heads and a scattering of more usual stuff.

Great Skua (2) Great Skua (15) Great Skua (12)

Great Skua

Wednesday 2nd – A day of gale force SSE winds meant there was only one thing for it. Da Nort Bank of Foula is basically undoable in a birding context. The cliffs are over 200m high and they are straight down. And I mean straight down! Looking along Da Nort Bank gives an almost prehistoric tingle down your spine, and it’s easy to imagine pterodactyls soaring along the cliffs rather than the multitudes of Fulmars that are there nowadays. There are a couple of small areas near the cliff top where you can look over into a gully, but you’re only looking at less than 1% of the cliff area. So the way to do it is to concentrate on the smaller cliffs near to Ristie (and by small I mean about 50m high!). It’s possible to look over the edge in a few places between Ristie and Soberlie Geo (the name we have given to the geo immediately to the east of Soberlie), and in strong SE winds these usually hold a few migrants. Today was no exception, although there was nothing rare or scarce to be found. Lots of Bramblings, Chaffinches, Redwings and Song Thrushes vied for space with a few Robins, Dunnocks and the odd Redstart and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Two Yellow-browed Warblers were the best on offer, although a Goldcrest was new for the trip. A third Yellow-browed Warbler was in the garden at Ristie.

Song Thrush on cliff

Song Thrush

Paul French Da Logat Foula 2nd Oct 2013 (1)

Doing an impression of a Jawa

Paul French Da Logat Foula 2nd Oct 2013

Cliff-top birding

Da Logat (nee Shit) Foula 2nd Oct 2013 Blackcap, Trolli Geo (2)

Blackcap on boulder beach

Bill Aspin on Soberlie Geo (2)

Selkie Geo, with Bill looking over the edge at the end of the fence

Bill Aspin at Da Shit (4) Bill Aspin at Da Shit (5) Bill Aspin in habitatBill Aspin at Da Shit (2) Bill Aspin at Da Shit (1)

Geo birding, with Bill Aspin

Thursday 3rd – another day of strong SSE winds made birding very difficult, and we restricted ourselves to the northern geos again. The afternoon turned into a very unpleasant mix of strong winds and driving rain, so we bottled it and stayed in Ristie. I realised I needed to make a start on labelling and sorting all the pictures from my latest Georgia trip, so spent a very dull afternoon doing that. And I’m still nowhere near finishing.

Birds in the geos were basically the same as yesterday with 3 less Yellow-browed Warblers, but a new Redstart was compensation.

Tomorrow should be our last day, but the weather seems to be conspiring against us. Visibility is apparently forecast to be poor, so the plane might not make it in. Which is sort of fine by us. We have spare food, and enough enthusiasm left for a few more days. Plus the wind should be veering SW, which is not a great direction but any change in the weather should drop a few birds on us. It’s been SSE for too long now, you get the feeling that it’s just run out of birds. Of course, I say this from the position of having no idea what is currently gracing Shetland. We’ve not made it to the school for internet access for two days now, there could be anything kicking off on Shetland and we’d be none the wiser. Here’s hoping that all turns out well on every level…

Friday 4th – Another dawn of low cloud and rain. After packing and dropping our bags at the top of the track, I went back to Ristie for a brief respite from the rain while Bill got a lift south. With little prospect of the plane going, I was quite relaxed. Suddenly the weather cleared, Soberlie hill lost its crown of cloud and I hurried out of the door. The far north was devoid of birds, and working Harrier produced a new Reed Bunting and Chiffchaff. Arriving at Ham, I met Geoff who’d been south and had a prob Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the Hametoun burn. Grabbing a lift south with him, we worked the burn together and also got distant views of the Great Grey Shrike he’d found earlier at Braidfit. There was however, no sign of the warbler or of the probable Olive-backed Pipit that Bill saw disappearing behind Biggins.

Great Grey Shrike, Braidfit

Great Grey Shrike. Honest.

Our search was cut short by the arrival of the plane. We decided that given the weather uncertainties and the possibility of the afternoon flight being cancelled, we’d be wise to get on this plane and leave the isle a few hours early. It turned out to be a good move! On arrival at Tingwall airstrip back on Mainland, we learnt that Fair Isle had been cut off for a week with no flights in or out. But more importantly, in the taxi on the way into Lerwick to collect our hire car for the next two days, the text came through about the Thick-billed Warbler down at Geosetter.

The usual antics at a twitch ensued. Luckily for me, I got a decent flight view of it within a few minutes of arrival, as we then stood there until duck with no further sightings. It was skulking in an oat crop and refusing to budge despite the gentle encouragement of myself and others walking around the edge of the field trying to flush it out. No luck. At one point there was a charge up the burn as someone was sure it had flown up there, but to no avail. It wasn’t until we were strolling back to the road with a lightly resigned air about the proceedings when it came out of the oat crop and perched on the fence for a few seconds right infront of Paul Harvey, then dived into the willows. It was rapidly flushed through the willows and popped out at the road end, giving slightly more prolonged views to those in the right place at the right time. Except for poor ol’ Pierre-Andre Crochet! Not many top listers have the self-control to not tick a potentially once in a life-time bird on brief views. We went back the next morning as Bill wanted further views. Would it be rude of me to mention that I saw the 2003 Fair Isle bird, so wasn’t that bothered by this? It probably would be, so I’ll keep that quiet.

Thick-billed Wblr twitch

Let me know if you can see yourself in the pic. I can see me, Bill, Dennis Coutts, Paul Harvey and Pierre-Andre Crochet. No idea who took this pic, and apologies for stealing it. If you message me I’ll credit you or take it down.

Saturday 5th – Back at Geosetter for just after dawn, we joined the growing crowd and settled in for what I fully expected to be a fruitless wait. Despondency was high, until a large bland warbler flew from the willows into the crop again. Unbelievably it was still here! It did its usual disappearing trick in the oat crop, and I did the unthinkable. I left the twitch to go and see the Lesser Yellowlegs at Clevigarth. I maybe the only birder to have ever left a Thick-billed Warbler to see a Lesser Yellowlegs, but I do remember some people at the 2003 Fair Isle bird leaving to look for a Red-throated Pipit, so I don’t feel too bad.

Pierre-Andre Crochet and Eric Didner, Geosetter

Pierre-Andre Crochet & Eric Didner, waiting for the Thickie.

Lesser Yellowlegs, Loch of Clevigarth (3)

Lesser Yellowlegs

But today was all about trying to find something ourselves, so I thought I’d show Bill the underwatched isle of Bressay. Then our plans were thwarted when an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was found in Hoswick! We spun the car around and arrived on the scene to be greeted by a resting EOW in the scope. It showed well for us, but then the crowd from the Thick-billed started to arrive, so we beat a hasty retreat.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (7)

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler

Onwards to Bressay, and after being stung for £17:50 on the ferry (FFS!!!), we went straight to Gorie. I rarely approach any spot expecting to find something good, but Gorie is something special. Unfortunately, we went and found one of the only autumn Reed Warblers in the whole of Shetland this year. In fact, there have been far more Blyth’s Reeds than Reeds, so we felt a tad hard done by. Still, good to go back there. We birded the rest of the island as best we could in the limited time available and ended up finding 9 Yellow-browed Warblers and a Great Grey Shrike. I like Bressay, it’s underwatched, it has some great gardens and it has the huge cliff of Noss to attract birds into it. It’s just a shame about that massive ferry fare.

Great Grey Shrike, Bressay (5)

Great Grey Shrike

And so onto the evening’s entertainment. The Shetland Bird Club put on a fantastic evening of illustrated talks from some of the best rarity finders from the last 6 decades. Great to hear stories from Dennis Coutts and Iain Robinson that I’d not heard before, and with free beer too! Some proper gripping yarns from the Skerries in the 70’s and tall tales of Bobby Tulloch were much appreciated.

Sunday 6th – Did a spot of birding in the North Mavine today, starting at Sullum Plantation and working south. Another good day for Yellow-brows, and a Red-breasted Flycatcher at Voe completed our week. We had a truly great time over the last two weeks or so. There was no mega on Foula this year, but we had an excellent roll call of birds that would have been truly excellent at any other British location. Seeing Geoff & Donna again was great, and many thanks to Helen for giving us the run of her house for two days.

Some more random pics:

Willow Warbler (151) Willow Warbler (114) Willow Warbler (94) Willow Warbler (62)

Willow Warbler

Starling (1)


Redwing (1)


Peat cuttings (7) Peat cuttings (11)

Peat cutting – fresh cut bank and drying peat

Paul French Da Swaa Foula 1st Oct 2013

Me climbing out of Da Swaa

Lesser Whitethroat 3 (6)

blythi or halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat?

Lesser Whitethroat 2 (4)

probable blythi Lesser Whitethroat

Grey Seals

Grey Seals

Common Seals (2)

Common Seals

Bill with friend Bill Aspin, South Ness, Foula (13)

Bill Aspin

Shetland. I’ll see you again next year…