The next in my personal list of top birding sites is one that’s on every British birder’s bucket list: Fair Isle.
Fair Isle, Scotland
Fair Isle is a small island, about 5km long and 2.4 wide, with a population of about 50 people. It sits roughly halfway between the most northerly island in the Orkney archipelago and the southern tip of the Shetlands.
Fair Isle is legendary as a place where rare birds can be seen. Not necessarily rare as in endangered, but rare as in almost-never-seen-in-Western Europe. Why these birds choose Fair Isle is not entirely clear, but every September and October birders flock there in hopes of adding exotica to their British bird lists. In 2012 I had the chance to go there as part of an Army Ornithological Society expedition, ably organized by Tim Cowley and Andrew Harrison.
The Fair Isle Experience
Birding Fair Isle is not without its challenges. It’s not an easy place to get to, and once there the only place to stay is at the Bird Observatory Guesthouse. Not that this was a hardship – the meals were excellent and the beds were comfy. But there is limited capacity so rooms have to be booked well in advance.
And on the subject of the Lodge – in March 2019 the Observatory and Guesthouse suffered a catastrophic fire. It is now being rebuilt, and if all goes well it will reopen in the Summer or Autumn of 2021.
The daily routine on Fair Isle begins before dawn with a walk to check out one of the areas where migrant birds collect. Then back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast. By then the wardens will be in the midst of their daily rounds and reports will be arriving about what birds are being seen and where.
After breakfast it’s back to patrolling. The Observatory staff will make a couple of runs to drop birders off at their desired locations, which is handy because otherwise all travel on the island is by shank’s mare. Then walking and birding until lunch, then more walking and birding, then dinner, followed perhaps by a pint at the bar. Then rest and repeat.
The routine is broken if a mega-rarity is seen. In that case the Observatory van goes careening around the island flying a red flag. All available souls pile in and then van heads for the site where the bird was last seen.
Rarities and Mega-rarities
We spent five days on the island and had an amazing haul of really good birds. The truly exotic finds (given with their normal ranges) included: Paddyfield Warbler (India, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan); Lanceolated Warbler (Russia to Japan); Pechora Pipit (between Kamchatka and Indonesia), and Arctic Warbler (Northern Russia to Alaska, wintering in Southeast Asia). We also had great views of some Western Palearctic species that rarely venture as far as Britain: Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Bluethroat being highlights.
Sadly, my visit was in my pre-photography days so I just have a few cellphone pictures to add – you will have to Google the rest if you want to see them. Start with this beauty.
PG Tips. But the mega of megas was a sighting of Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, known to British birders as PG Tips. To give you an idea of the grip this bird has on birders, one fellow who was at the lodge while we were there said that he had come every October for 20 years hoping to see one. It breeds in places like Siberia and Manchuria and winters from India to Indonesia.
I’m not sure why this one species has so captured the imagination, but as luck would have it one dropped by during our trip. Like all Old World warblers it is a skulking bird with cryptic plumage, but it was relocated in a field full of long grass. Eventually everyone present managed to get a brief view, but when the wardens decided to ring the bird we were all hoping to get a closer look.
And we did. Hosanna!
How to get there
First, you need to get to Shetland. Loganair flights run from places like Aberdeen to Sumburgh Airport, and an overnight ferry service runs from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Once on Shetland mainland you need to make your way to a little airstrip (Tingwall) outside Lerwick where a worryingly small Airtask aircraft makes the hop to Fair Isle. Alternately, if you are keen on adventure and regurgitation, the Good Shepherd IV, a fishing boat, will take you from Grutness near Lerwick to the island over some of the roughest seas available.
Fair Isle airport is a single gravel airstrip, so if the wind is too far off from the axis of the runway aircraft cannot land or take off. Your plans need to be flexible enough to allow for being stuck on the island for extra days (yay!) or stuck in Lerwick waiting for a flight (boo!).
Would I go back to Fair Isle? In a heartbeat. Is it likely to happen? Hard to say, but if not at least I got a chance to live the Fair Isle experience. 😊