Sunday, 22 October 2017

Shetland 2017 - Part 1 - Planning, Shetland and Fair Isle


It all came about from a chance conversation a few weeks ago with one of our birdwatching group Steve.  I was bemoaning the fact that I had never been to that traditional Mecca of birdwatchers, Fair Isle in Shetland.

Back in the day when I first started birdwatching (as it was known then), you used to serve your birding ‘apprenticeship’ around the local nature reserves and parks before you moved on to maybe a long bank holiday weekend at the ONLY place to go in mainland Britain, Cley-next-the-Sea in Norfolk.  Here you would come down from the makeshift campsite on Salthouse heath to have breakfast at Nancy’s where you plotted out your days activity and waited for phone calls (no mobile in those days) - maybe the long trudge to Blakeney Point and back, or seawatching off the coastguards, before retiring to the George where you’d have a few sleeping draughts before retiring back up the long hill to the heath again.

Next in the list of places to go were the Scillies, where autumn storms would bring unheard-of birds to you, from all directions. 

But the very pinnacle of places to go to was Fair Isle in the Shetland Islands.  Apart from the number of firsts for Britain it seemed to attract on a regular basis, Fair Isle was unique in that there was actually a waiting list to stay at the observatory there!  If you didn’t book up 2 years in advance, you wouldn’t get in!  I obviously never knew what I’d be doing in the next month let alone 2 years in advance, so I never managed to get there.  Then, during my 30 year sojourn in Spain, the axis of UK birding seemed to change - Scillies went out of fashion and it was all Shetland Shetland Shetland.  My only experience of the Scottish islands was a hitching trip to the outer Hebs (had to be done to see the Steller’s Eider and Corncrake) - Shetland I’d never been to.

Steve casually mentioned that he had a double room at the obs. at Fair Isle for 3 weeks in a couple of weeks time as the person he was meant to be going with had pulled out.  He said if I could get up there, I was welcome to share the room.   At first I didn’t seriously consider it, but the idea pulled at me, so I decided to see how practical it would be.

Checking with flights etc., I found it WAS possible (albeit somewhat expensive), and so I threw caution to the wind and started booking flights and hire cars etc.  These all worked out fairly well, the only problem being that it would be WOOL WEEK in Shetland when I arrived, and so finding accommodation in advance was impossible.  In the end, I decided to take the risk and look for somewhere when I got there - at worst I could sleep in the car as it was only going to be for one night.

So all I now needed to do was to sort out what needed to be taken.  Steve gave me a couple of tips on this - on the plane from Tingwall to Fair Isle the luggage limit is 15kg, so he suggested not taking ‘scope or tripod as these are very rarely used.  Also, bins and camera can be carried as hand luggage.  He also suggested that instead of walking boots, I take my ‘MUCKMASTER’ wellington boots.  These are incredibly comfortable, totally waterproof, and by wearing them I only needed to take some light slippers as alternative footwear (in actual fact I took a pair of very lightweight plastic beach clogs), although I might look a little odd in the airport in wellies!

So now it was just down to keeping an eye on what was being seen further north, and a patient wait.

Day 1 - 27/09/2017

Having got absolutely no sleep over the previous night due to packing, unpacking and repacking my bags (and getting them to just less than 15kg. In total) I set off from Benfleet  at 06:30am, reaching London City airport at  07:10am, with my flight due off to Edinburgh at 08:20am.  My first time using London City airport and I must admit I was impressed by both the speed in getting there and the ease in getting through to the departures lounge.  However, due to fog, my flight was cancelled and there was some doubt as to when the next flight would be. The flight company (FlyBe) gave me a voucher for breakfast in compensation, but I must admit I did feel somewhat out of place wandering around the City airport for an additional 3 hours in me wellies!

I eventually set off at just after 12 midday, and luckily I wasn’t due to pick up the next flight until 15:30pm, so all went smoothly, and after my second flight, I was at Sumburgh airport (Shetland) and picking up my hire car at 16:30pm.  It may seem strange that I picked up a hire car for less than a day, but the logic behind it is that it cost about the same as a taxi from Sumburgh to Tingwall (just north of Lerwick), and should the flight to Fair Isle be cancelled for any reason, I would have transport until I could get out to Fair Isle. So I spent the last remaining hours of daylight familiarising myself with the roads before driving up to Lerwick to do some shopping, and with still no accommodation sorted, the night spent in the rain in the car!

Home for my first day and night

Day 2 - 28/09/2017

Today in theory I was to be flying from Tingwall over to Fair Isle, but waking up to heavy rain and fairly strong winds, I thought this unlikely - a thought I had confirmed later in the day when I contacted the flight company - no flights for the next two days but I should be able to get onto Fair Isle at midday on the 30th.  I contacted the car hire company to let them know I’d need the car for a further two days. It turned out that all their cars were allocated and so they needed the car back.  However, they let me have use of an Astra panel van which actually suited me better than the Fiat 500 I’d been using, so after topping up the Fiat with petrol I went back into Lerwick and swapped the car over.

I now had a couple of days on Mainland Shetland, and so after a quick call into Tesco’s at Lerwick for supplies and with the weather improving, I made my way back down south to Sumburgh once again.  After breakfast at the airport, I bought maps at the information booth there and got myself connected  to the local bird groups What’sApp networks as I thought I might as well see the birds that were currently here.

If a plane's coming in or going out, the main road gets shut!
 In the south of Mainland Shetland, Sumburgh Head

Calling in at the second quarry on the way up towards Sumburgh lighthouse, amongst the commoner migrants  I had a flock of 12 Twite, Redwing, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Spotted Flycatcher, Lesser Whitethroat and Skylark.  Later the same day, I dropped  back down to Grutness harbour, where there were 3 Dunlin and plenty of Rock Pipits, and I got distant views of a Great Grey Shrike.  With a cold developing and still no digs to sleep in, I found somewhere to park up, and went to sleep.

Red-breasted Flycatcher, Sumburgh

Day 3 - 29/09/2017

With drizzle and a stiff SE breeze at first light, I went back to Grutness to see if I could get better views of the Great Grey Shrike. On the road in the headlights just as it was getting light, I had a Little Bunting hopping along the asphalt! The Dunlin and Rock Pipits were still there as was the G.G.Shrike, except it had hidden itself in some rolls of wire about 50 metres away.  As the rain came down again but with the promise of better weather later, I called in again to the airport for breakfast, coming back out at about 10am when the rain finally stopped.  I once again went to the second quarry on the way up to the Sumburgh lighthouse where the R.B.Flycatcher had gone, but there were Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler, Twite and Common Redpolls.

 Great Grey Shrike in the murk and wire

Spotted Flycatcher at the quarry

 Common Redpoll at the quarry

After this as I had to do some work and needed to use the internet, I made my way back to Lerwick and the public library there with its free internet (and where I promptly forgot which carpark I’d left the car in, and in the end had to call into the police station for help to refind it!).  And then another, and hopefully my last, night sleeping in the car.

Day 4 - 30/09/2017

With almost no cloud and vey light winds, I decided to go straight up to Tingwall in case it was possible to get an earlier flight onto Fair Isle. In the end it wasn’t and leaving the car there, I finally got on the Islander aircraft at 11am, arriving at Fair Isle at 11:30 where I was picked up by Chris from the observatory, and with my cold in full flow now, and a fairly strong wind outside.
My transport to Fair Isle

Fair Isle Bird Observatory (above)

I had lunch and decided to stay at the obs. in the warm all afternoon, watching out of the window over the garden that has a couple of mist nets in it.  Here I saw Yellow-browed Warbler, Blackcaps, Robins, Siskins, Twite, and further round towards the bay there were Fulmars and Bonxies flying.

After supper and log-call, I went back to my room to a warm bed and good night’s sleep.

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