Returning to Fair Isle last week, I was reminded of my first visit way back in 1992. The island still inspires all of the old emotions, and it wasn’t long before I caught myself daydreaming about living there once more. Way back then in ’92 I was there for a week in September, staying at the old bird observatory. It was everything I’d dared hope it would be – spectacular scenery, a succession of rare birds, good food, and evenings spent in the comfortable lounge bantering with other birders. The island gave so much, and I fell hard for her.
Fast forward to last week and I was back again after an 18 month absence to lead a group of a half dozen birders on a week-long Fair Isle spring migration holiday. We were staying in the south of the island at the Auld Haa guesthouse, right in the heart of the action amidst the crofts. We’d no sooner landed on the island than the bird observatory warden had alerted us to a wary Short-toed Lark, and with that under the belt we caught up with a smart male Grey-headed Wagtail and, as the day came to a close, found a bedraggled Wryneck for good measure.
As the week wore on we re-found a Tawny Pipit that had gone missing for a few days on the island; watched a Short-eared Owl flying over the heathery hills; and tracked a pair of Common Cranes as they flew up and down the island, occasionally towering high over the lighthouse at the southern tip of the land, presumably trying to decide whether to strike out to sea towards distant but just visible on the horizon Orkney. Happily, they also spent some time feeding in the green fields, wandering amongst bemused sheep as they went.
With a breath of easterly winds numbers of common migrants blown in from Europe began picking up a little, and Friday dawned with news from the bird observatory of a Subalpine Warbler species in their garden. We hurried north to where the Fair Isle Bird Observatory staff had trapped the bird to establish it’s true identity – what was once merely Subalpine Warbler is now considered two separate species, Subalpine (of eastern and western subspecies), and Moltoni’s Subalpine Warblers respectively.
The latter is the rarest of the lot in Britain, with fewer than 10 accepted records in all. This was definitely the one we all wanted it to be… and so it proved. Many happy birders exchanging smiles all round, not least me – this was my first new British bird since, if memory serves, I caught up with Swinhoe’s Petrel – also on Fair Isle!
As we walked back down the island basking in the glow a bird that matches rarity with beauty inspires, we could tell there were more birds newly arrived, so hopes were high. I was on high alert, checking every movement in the hope something good would my way come – and soon enough, my patience was rewarded with a beautiful male Bluethroat popping up in a ditch in front of us. Joy. It’s the unexpected that makes birding at this time of year so enjoyable. That and good company…
The island is such a warm and welcoming place, and it was above all a huge pleasure to catch up with folk I’d not seen for some time, to share a dram or two, to exchange news, and to promise myself I’ll be back again soon.
We flew out of the island on Friday afternoon full of the usual trepidation. Would our flight even get out before the weather closed in? This is an occupational hazard with Fair Isle, some 25 miles of sea away from the Shetland mainland. Perhaps more critically, would something really unusual be found just after we’d left – that happens too, and it always stings.
As it happened, our flight left uneventfully, and we’d seen the pick of the crop of birds. The love remains intact.