Fair Isle Bird Observatory & Guesthouse

Ranger's blog

August, September and October round-up

Hi all! Welcome to the end of the season and the last Ranger blog this year. I hope you’ve been reading the latest sightings as they’ve been coming in. We've had some truly fabulous days in the last few months, when the favourable winds have been blowing! Let’s go back a couple months and start at the end of summer as we finished off the seabird work back in August.

An art installation by the Obs team called ‘walk this way’, or a way of getting our shoes dry, and South Light in the sun with the wader nets up (by Sally Kunzig)

While we were visiting the Restengeos earlier in the summer and ringing auks there, the priority was to locate Shag nests that we could revisit to check their productivity, and hopefully get colour rings on chicks when they were close to fledging size. The Darvic rings are useful as they make resighting data much easier to collect, as you don’t have to recapture the individual, just get the code off the band while observing through bins or a scope. So when you next visit Fair Isle, or are travelling along the UK coast, be sure to check the Shags for colour rings! As well as the clutches in the Restengeos, after our final visit to Greenholm for the Puffins, there was an accessible clutch on the edge of the cliff off South Green. A bonus for the team!

Sally and Georgia ringing Shags (by Alex Penn), Shag chicks showing off their new rings (by Alex Penn) and Alex demonstrating the correct way to catch a Shag chick (by Sally Kunzig)

The end of the summer is the time to tie up loose ends for other seabirds. The team went back to check on the Fulmars and see how many of the nests we surveyed earlier in the year had a chick in them. We also kept an eye on the Bonxies and Arctic Skuas to see how many fledged and left the island. And the final, final bit of seabird monitoring was carried out in October, as the final Gannet chicks fledged and left the cliffs. It’s not been the best year for productivity of most seabirds on the island, but the positive this year was that there’s been no local cases of bird flu during the breeding season. So although the birds had to deal with low fish stocks in the North Sea, they weren’t also battling the flu too!

A nearly ready to fledge Bonxie, the final Fulmar plot count, and a happy team after a successful trip to the Restengeos, with Matt Broadbent, our volunteer at the time (by Sally Kunzig)

The end of summer also saw the end of the tourist season on Fair Isle. We had 5 cruise ships visit the island over August and September, and although the Puffins had left, everyone greatly enjoyed walking around Fair Isle, taking in the scenery and other wildlife, as well as journeying into the past via the museum. It’s been the busiest year so far for cruise ships this year on Fair Isle, with 21 ships landing over the summer, and I can safely say it’s been greatly enjoyed by all involved! Excitingly for me, I was invited aboard on the penultimate ship to visit us, called the Scenic Eclipse II. The ship had only been finished in the last year and boasted a huge range of luxuries on board, including six restaurants, an ‘everything you can think of’ spa and multiple swimming pools - my guide couldn’t remember how many at the time!

The Scenic Eclipse II getting ready to bring passengers to Fair Isle (by Sally Kunzig), Sally sitting in a helicopter, on the cruise ship! (Yes, they have a helicopter!), and the final cruise ship of the summer in South Haven (by Sally Kunzig)

The mark of autumn coming to the island is the return of census. We had two fantastic volunteers join us this season, Matt Broadbent for August and early September, and Sam Langlois up to the end of October. With the wardening team back to marching around the island, the birding group chat had everyone on high alert, waiting to get the call that something of great interest had been found. Birders flocked to the island in the hope of seeing the rarities that are brought to Fair Isle with favourable winds. Unfortunately, many of those favourable winds seemed to take place after the birders had left! Even so, there were twitches left, right and centre across the isle in late September/early October, many also coinciding with birds that were able to be trapped by the Obs team. Some birds were caught quickly and others required quite a bit of patience and/or shepherding by the staff. A Lanceolated Warbler even required a spritely manoeuvre from one of the FIBO science directors! Sorry folks, I didn’t manage to capture that piece of history with a camera!

The group around the Turkestan Shrike (by Sally Kunzig), the Obs team and FIBOT President Roy Dennis after catching the Quoy Lancy (by Sam Langlois), the gathering for the second Lancy caught this autumn (by Sally Kunzig), and photos on photos of the Pallas’s Warbler (by Sally Kunzig)

Autumn also brought actual night to the island, so along with Storm Petrel sessions in August, wader nets were put up at Muckle Uri Geo outside South Light and our red head torches were donned to process any waders that didn’t manage to see the net in the moonlight. We had some really successful sessions, with Redshank, Knot, Ruff and Dunlin caught, to name a few! As the nights got earlier and earlier, Alex also ventured out with his dazzling gear to see what was roosting on the island. Some highlights of his hard work were one of each of both Pink-footed and Greylag Geese, a Whooper Swan and a Hen Harrier! It was amazing to see these birds up close, when normally as soon as they see you they take to the skies. We also had an amazing influx of Short-eared Owls this October, so we got the net out a couple of times to catch as many as we could. Our very first attempt this autumn rewarded us with six SEOs ringed, including three caught at the same time! What a treat!

Adult and juvenile Knot in the hand at night (by Georgia Platt), three Short-eared Owls (by Georgia Platt), Redshank (by Sally Kunzig), and the Whooper Swan dazzled by Alex (by Sally Kunzig)

The Greylag (held by Alex) and Pink-footed Geese (held by Sam Langlois), and the Hen Harrier in the hand, indoors to have a better look! (by Sally Kunzig)

Many of the activities I did with the kids at school this year involved the marine environment. At the end of August we had a great time with our homemade plankton nets, trawling along the pier at the Haven. We had some great finds! Thanks to Nick Riddiford and his microscope, we were able to identify the main plankton we found as the sea butterfly, a planktonic mollusc, that seemed to be having a great bloom at that time. There were also plentiful numbers of shrimp to be found everywhere. We caught a fifteen-spined stickleback, and found some very pretty nudibranchs when we moved from the open water of the pier to the more sheltered and seaweed-covered underside of the floating pontoon. Later in September the kids joined me down in Muckle Uri Geo for a spot of rockpooling, an activity that I knew they had all done and enjoyed many times before. So I set them the challenge of finding things on the shore that they couldn’t already identify, which ended up being a fantastic seaweed hunt!

Sally showing the kids and older kids different plankton (by Georgia Platt), shrimp under a microscope (thanks Eileen!) (by Sally Kunzig) and the nudibranch, Polycera quadrilineata, under a microscope (by Nick Riddiford)

Having given bird walks to cruise ship passengers, day trippers and guests on the island, I finally gave a guided walk to my hardest critics, the school kids...and it went great! With so many thrushes about on the island, as well as the resident birds, it was a good day to be outside and having a look through a pair of binoculars. All five of the school kids came out and saw different bird species that they were able to tick off a bingo sheet I’d created for autumn birding. It’s been such a fun year doing different outdoor and wildlife focused activities with the kids here. I was very glad to hear they’d all enjoyed everything too, and was given the best leaving present I can think of!

The school kids and Sally looking through binoculars (by Hollie Shaw), and a final farewell from the school kids (by Gillian Maxwell)

Coming from a marine biology background, if I’m treated to calm and warm weather and I’m next to the sea, you are almost certain to find me in it! So on those hot days in August and September, I donned my wetsuits and fins to have a look in the Haven with my camera, and see what life I could find underwater. The plankton bloom that we found in the trawls was evident whilst snorkelling. Although the water was clear, there were many tiny things moving in the currents. Plankton blooms can also coincide with an abundance of jellyfish, and we had been seeing a few Lion’s Mane jellies from the coast already, so it was great to get up close to one in North Haven, though thankfully never within touching distance. Other smaller jellyfish included comb jellies (or sea gooseberries) and moon jellies, many of which lined the seabed after recent stormy weather likely washed them ashore. Shoals of small sandeels made way for me in the water, and crabs were constantly running away when they’d see my shadow above me. It’s a great feeling to immerse yourself in that environment, next time I’ll be bringing my drysuit in the hopes that my feet don’t turn blue!

Lion’s Mane jellyfish and a shoal of Sandeel in North Haven (by Sally Kunzig)

We expect late summer and early autumn to be the best time in the year to see cetaceans around Fair Isle, the sea having warmed up from the summer. The mixing of cool and warm water brings high productivity of plankton and fish, which hopefully draws cetaceans closer to shore where there are upwellings. Autumn didn’t disappoint! We had close encounters with a large pod of Risso’s Dolphin and (separately) a group of Orca outside of South Light, and an exceptionally close few Minke Whales off Meoness, almost within touching distance. But what none of us expected was to see a proper feeding frenzy of 10s of Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphin, and a Humpback Whale in the middle of the fray, off the south coast of the island. It was an incredible sight to witness, with diving birds swooping around the rising fins, and even more amazing that many of these animals stayed around the island for nearly two weeks after. It’s a great sign that there is plentiful fish for not just the cetaceans, so a welcome and hopeful sight.

Minke Whale close in off Meoness (by Sally Kunzig)

So that’s it! The end of the 2023 season at Fair Isle Bird Obs. As a final send off from me, there are some huge thanks in order for making this season on Fair Isle so memorable. Firstly to everyone at the school, Gillian, Hollie, Pat, George and all the kids, it was great to spend so much time with you throughout the year and share so much joy in getting to understand wildlife on Fair Isle. A massive thanks to Nick, for showing me plants and insects I would have otherwise overlooked, and being an amazing help with activities at the school as well. We couldn’t have done it without you - or your kit! ;) Everyone who helped out with the cruise ships, you were all fantastic, extra thanks to Eileen for being chief organiser and also for bringing the most enthusiasm to everything, especially when it’s needed most! Thank you Anne for sharing the history of the isle with me over each cup of tea! Huge thanks to Neil for encouraging me to bring my saxophone to the island and then letting me join the prestigious Fair Isle Band! Was great to “get it right sometimes” with you, Guillermo and Rachel. I could keep naming names, but the biggest thanks to absolutely everyone on the island, for being so welcoming and inviting, what with beach parties and bbqs, swimming sessions or darts, Fair Isle is the most amazing place and, yes, I’m sure I’ll be coming back.

Beach bonfire party (by Sally Kunzig)

Finally, thank you to Alex and Georgia, for sharing such a fantastic season with me. It’s been a blast working with you both and I wish you guys the best of luck!

The 2023 FIBO team, Sally, Georgia and Alex all holding ringed Shag chicks (By Sally Kunzig. Seems we never did get that ‘smart’ team photo! ;) )

Written by Sally Kunzig, Ranger. All photos used with permission.


July round-up

Hello all! I’m back again to give a round-up of what we’ve been up to at the Observatory in July. From full cliffs with chicks hatching, to seeing our first fledglings, from foggy days where we couldn’t see up the island to sunny flat calm days on the boat, from ringing Arctic Tern chicks to ringing Gannets, it has been a month worth recapping!

Some days you want to work outside, and others, not so much! (By Sally Kunzig)

As July is the main chick rearing month for seabirds, one of the big tasks for the month was doing the all-day feed watch for Guillemots and Puffins. For both species this meant the four of us took it in turns to watch the study plot in two-hour shifts between 3am and around 11pm. We did these on calm (and mostly sunny) days not just out of convenience for sitting outside all day, but to give us the best conditions to view adults coming to the site with food for their chicks. For Guillemots we made use of the hut at Pietron, and for every bird that flew back into the colony, we had to note down the time, whether it was carrying food, and if so, how big and what type of fish it was. Puffins required a bit more setting up, with us decorating the site with numbered flags for each occupied burrow we saw the day before the feed watch. During the feed watch we had to determine the most common type of fish in the bill of the Puffins, as unlike Guillemots where they tend to catch one fish at a time, Puffins bring back a catch of many small fish, usually Sandeels.

Guillemot feed watch and Puffin feed watch sites, and Puffins loafing at the feed watch burrows (by Sally Kunzig)

As Puffins return to the burrows very quickly with their catch, we’re unable to estimate the number of fish in the bill during the feed watch, so we also have a session catching Puffins on Tor o’ da Ward Hill (down the steep slope to the west of Ward Hill). There’s a large Puffin nesting site there, making it the perfect place to set up a mist net very early in the morning (0530!) and catch birds as they’re coming back in. As Puffins bounce into the mist net they release their catch onto the ground, sometimes spreading the fish quite a distance! We then retrieve the Puffin out of the net and ring it, as someone else collects all the fish in a plastic wallet to be sorted through later. For anyone concerned that the Pufflings weren’t getting their breakfast, there were many more birds flying over or past the net than into it, much to our frustration – it took us four hours to get the necessary 30 samples! We then processed all the samples later that morning. It’s nicer to be handling dead fish the fresher they are...although that still doesn’t make it pleasant. Every fish, or bit of fish, in the sample had to be identified, measured and weighed. This meant sorting all the fish by hand – even after being through the wash, I think my jumper still smells slightly of fish! This year hasn’t been great for large Sandeels - the main fish type we’ve seen caught has been very small translucent Sandeels instead. But we’ve also seen many Puffins with a good catch of healthy sized Rockling, so it is good news that they’ve been able to find a food resource without the larger Sandeels being present.

Puffin mist net on Tor o’ da Ward Hill with fish sample bag, the aftermath of the fish sampling, and the Obs team conducting the fish sampling outside (sensibly!) (by Sally Kunzig)

We’ve been very busy with Puffins this month! We’ve been back to our productivity monitoring site on Greenholm three more times. Firstly to check which of the burrows had hatched chicks, and then continue monitoring their growth and see how many of them fledge out of the burrows. This meant seeing the Pufflings in all stages of growth, from some quite small chicks still in downy fluff, to larger ones that have many of their juvenile feathers growing. We’ve also been up to the Puffin burrows on Buness and Roskilie to try and recapture birds that were GLS tagged two years ago and catch currently breeding birds to fit new GLS tags on them. These tags collect data on the whereabouts of the Puffins while they winter out at sea, and where they go foraging for fish while they spend the breeding season on Fair Isle. 20 tags were deployed on breeding Puffins in 2021, and although a couple of individuals with the old tags have been spotted this year, so far we’ve been unable to recapture any of them. Fingers crossed that the birds that got tagged this year will be able to be recaptured next year so we can see where they’ve travelled away from Fair Isle!

The classic Greenholm Puffin monitoring photo (by Marcela Poddaniec). A small downy Puffin chick, a larger Puffin chick with mostly juvenile feathers, and an adult Puffin in the hand (by Sally Kunzig)

Our other auks haven’t taken the backseat though! Alex, Georgia and I were back down in Easter Lother a couple times this month, including the final time of the season. We’ve continued our productivity monitoring of the Razorbill colony down there, finding, measuring and weighing all the chicks from each nest. As both Razorbill and Guillemot chicks leave the nest before they’re fully grown, they are the first seabirds to leave Fair Isle. I hope they enjoy their winter out at sea – brr!

Razorbill chick in the hand, Georgia, Alex and Sally with Razorbills in Easter Lother, Guillemot monitoring at Da Swadin, and the last Guillemots at Pietron (by Sally Kunzig)

Now that the nights are getting darker, although still not true night yet, we’ve set up nets in the Haven to ring European Storm Petrels (more fondly known as Stormies!). For those that don’t know what’s involved, I think we’re a rather strange sight, rocking up to the Haven once it’s dark, setting up a net then blasting Storm Petrel vocalisations out of a megaphone for the next couple of hours. Stormies are the smallest seabird in the world, think the size of a swallow, but live most of their life out at sea. As they are so small they are easily predated so are only found on islands without land predators (such as Fair Isle) and tend to leave and return to the nest under the cover of darkness as a precaution to predation. Hence us ringing under the cover of darkness, as it’s when the birds are the most active. As a trainee ringer, Stormie sessions are a great way to boost my numbers of birds ringed. We’ve had a couple of sessions already, one of them resulting in over 200 Stormies caught in just over three hours! That session was very exciting as we also caught a couple of Leach’s Petrels, similar to Stormies but about twice the size!

Storm Petrel in the hand and a Leach’s Petrel in the hand (by Sally Kunzig)

The beginning of the month saw us walking through the Arctic Tern colony and ringing all the chicks that we could find. We stick to the same lines that we had when we counted nests last month, just this time when we found a chick, we picked it up and put a ring on it. Arctic Tern chicks grow very quickly, when we walked through for ringing chicks we were already coming across birds that nearly had all their flight feathers. At the end of the month, when the juveniles had all fledged, we set up a couple of large mist nets in the colony to try and catch some of the roosting adults and hopefully find a couple of retraps. Similarly to Stormies, we wait for the cover of darkness and blast out Arctic Tern chatter through the megaphone. Georgia and Alex also constructed some decoy terns to place behind one of the nets in the hope to draw the terns to that area and into the net. Unfortunately there wasn’t as big of a roost of birds as we were hoping for, but we were still successful in ringing a couple of adults, and a couple of retraps. We also learnt that if there’s any seabird noise being played through a megaphone, be that Arctic Tern, Manx Shearwater or Leach’s Petrel, you will catch a Storm Petrel!

A recently hatched Arctic Tern chick in the hand next to one maybe a week older, the Arctic Tern decoys pre-deployment, and red lights on for ringing Arctic Tern adults in the dark (by Sally Kunzig)

Other than seabirds, July is a busy month for the islanders as it’s sheep shearing season. Each of the crofts deals with the sheep in their fields individually, but everyone on the island gets involved collecting all the sheep off the north hills together. Luckily for us there were lots of extended family members on isle for parties and the summer holidays, so it was both busy with people and with sheep at the Cru! Once all the sheep (and people) had been rounded up, clipping begins in earnest. I hadn’t clipped a sheep before, and now I’ve done two! It’s quite therapeutic once you get into it, but I am grateful I didn’t need to be there all afternoon clipping every one!

All the hill sheep in the Cru (by Sally Kunzig). Marcela and Sally clipping their first sheep (by Tommy of Auld Haa). Three generations of FIBO Wardens clipping sheep, L->R; Deryk Shaw, Alen Penn, Nick Riddiford (by Georgia Platt)

Although there were a couple of cruise ships in July, I had just as many guided walks to give with day trippers arriving via the plane, or even visitors staying at one of the houses on the island. Fortunately there were more beautifully sunny days in the month than there were foggy ones, and most of the time the seabirds were posing nicely for photos. Getting to the end of the month when Guillemots and Razorbills have left their posts on the cliffs means other wildlife can take to the stage. During one of my monthly biosecurity checks I found the largest frog I’ve seen on the island! Although they were very common to spot in late spring when they were around the ponds laying their frogspawn, I’ve not noticed any in a couple of months, so it was a bit of a surprise to find underneath a biosecurity box. Marcela and I have also been out with Nick Riddiford in the hunt for Frog Orchids and other interesting plants on the island. We’ve not managed to find an orchid in full bloom yet, but there are always more species to have a look at. I hadn’t yet seen the two insectivorous plants that we have on Fair Isle, so it was great to be guided towards them. Interestingly, Nick mentioned that the Sundews seem to have spread quite considerably where we found them at the top of Wirvie burn.

Frog found under a biosecurity box, and Sundews and Butterwort at Wirvie burn (by Sally Kunzig)

The calm nights for Stormies have also led to the moth traps being put out. A light source on top of a box filled with old egg boxes is the perfect way to catch them. We then have to carefully go through the box the following morning and count how many of each species are in there (...I say ‘we’, though it does tend to be Alex!). As South Light isn’t very sheltered and doesn’t have much cover around it, we expect only a couple of species in the trap. So it’s good news that we’ve had up to 16 different species in the trap this month! Though the highlight for moths in July was finding four Hummingbird Hawkmoths on the same bank behind the coastguard hut.
A selection of moths from the moth trap, and a Hummingbird Hawkmoth (by Sally Kunzig)

To complete what has already been a fantastic month, for the first time in 13 years, Gannets have been ringed at the colony on Fair Isle! Having looked through many photos in the archive for Fair Isle Friday posts and seeing old Obs teams going into colonies around the island, we figured it was worth a try. Previously, access to colonies was only possible by roping in, but Georgia had scoped out a couple of access points from her Gannet productivity monitoring spots. Alex, Georgia and I set out to a colony at Dronger, on the north west tip of the island, and after a bit of shimmying down the cliffs (safely!), we made it to the colony. As the chicks are still covered in downy feathers, they stick tightly to their nest, where we slowly approach them and ring them in situ. The adults move off and start swirling around the colony, constantly looking at us to check when we move away. This is true except for the very first one we came across, enabling me to ring my very first Gannet! A very special moment for all of us to be in the colony and so close to these exceptional seabirds.

Sally with an adult Gannet (By Georgia Platt). Alex and Georgia in the Gannetry (By Sally Kunzig)

In non-bird related news, we had some musicians visit the island as part of their tour around the UK isles by sailing boat. Which meant a music night in the hall, with a supporting act by the Fair Isle band, which I had been invited to join at the beginning of the year. Our debut performance was an absolute blast and well worth all the practice we put in beforehand!

Neil on guitar and vocals, Guillermo on bass and Sally on saxophone in the Fair Isle Band! (By Alex Penn)

A very quick final note: we had BBC Radio Shetland day tripping on isle at the beginning of August, mainly to hear about how the building work of the observatory is going, but they also managed to catch me before I gave guided walks to a cruise ship that was in. If you’d like to hear the piece, it’s on BBC Sounds here from the 10-minute mark. Enjoy!

BBC Sounds radio clip

Written by Sally Kunzig, Ranger

Georgia and Sally ringing a Gannet chick at North Felsigeo (By Alex Penn)


June round-up

Hello all, welcome back to another monthly round up of what the observatory team have been getting up to on Fair Isle in June! Although much of the seabird monitoring started in May, as the daily spring migration census ended at the beginning of June, all of our focus poured into the necessary visits to different seabird colonies around the island.

Before going into all the wonderful seabird work we got up to in June, it would be remiss to not mention the waders that we encountered. All of our breeding waders fledged this month, so right at the beginning we were still able to catch a couple of the chicks to ring.

Ringed Plover chick in the hand, two Curlew chicks in the hand, Georgia and Alex with Oystercatcher chicks (by Sally Kunzig).

After a rather dreary May, the first two weeks of June were exactly what we needed. Lots of calm weather and sunshine to warm up the days and the ability to get out there and work with our seabirds. The first big job was heading out in the dingy over to Greenholm, one of the stacks off the southwest of the isle, and our Puffin productivity monitoring plot. I’m grateful that I could bring my phone across to take photos there as I don’t think there’s any way to describe in words how gorgeous Greenholm was with the Thrift out in full bloom. Plus being able to hear the Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and other seabirds flying around us…it took me a good minute to remember I was there to find occupied Puffin burrows! There is a highly technical way of checking Puffin burrows, using an endoscopic-like camera that has a live feed so you can view if the burrow is occupied by a Puffin and/or egg. But us at Fair Isle Bird Obs are in favour of the traditional method - just stick your hand down the burrow and have a feel around! There is no elegant way of doing this, as I found out, and nor is there a way of doing it whereby your fingers won’t get nibbled by a protective parent Puffin! We found more occupied burrows than last year, a total of 72, a good sign! We mark all the burrows with a painted stone so we can find them again when we return to check on the Pufflings, fingers crossed for another calm day to get there!

Sally, Dan and Alex checking puffin burrows on Greenholm (by Georgia Platt), Great Black-backed Gull chick in the Thrift on Greenholm (by Sally Kunzig), the observatory team checking Puffin burrows on Greenholm (by Mati Ventrillon).

Puffin chicks aren’t the only auks we’ve been looking for. We’ve been back down into Easter Lother three times in June to note how many Razorbill chicks have hatched, and to take biometrics from the chicks (wing length and weight) to assess how quickly they’re growing. It’s great to hear more squeaks from chicks every subsequent time we go down there!

A recently hatched Razorbill chick with adult, and weighing a young Razorbill chick at Easter Lother (by Sally Kunzig)

All the calm days have also meant we’ve been able to get out on the boat (not just the dingy!) and access geos around the island that are otherwise inaccessible. The primary reason for us adventuring around the island was to assess how many Shag nests are currently occupied. All of the landing sites are also bolder beaches that Razorbills, and a handful of other auks, make use of for nesting. So while we’re there we try and catch some adults to ring, so that we can continue to get retrap information about the success of our auks.

The observatory team in the boat in South Ramnigeo (by Sally Kunzig), Sally and Dan looking off the front of the boat looking into Furse (by Georgia Platt). June also saw our second changeover of volunteers with Marcela joining the team! Alex with a net waiting for Razorbills to fly in, while Georgia and Marcela ring Razorbills, in South Ramnigeo (by Sally Kunzig).

May was definitely the busy month for cruise ships, June in comparison seems quiet only seeing six boats land on the island. Due to the building work in the Haven, a couple of them ended up landing in South Harbour, so I took groups on bird walks up to South Green to have a look at the colonies of different seabirds on Greenholm. Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Shags were all present for guests to see – I have a feeling everyone’s camera roll leaves the island much fuller!

A cruise ship disembarking at South Harbour, passengers on South Green with South Lighthouse in the background, and cruise ship passengers at the south end of Buness watching Puffins (by Sally Kunzig).

And the school kids have now broken up for their summer holidays! Just before they did I was able to go out with them on a pond dipping expedition at Sukka Mire with Nick Riddiford, previous FIBO warden and general Fair Isle wildlife know-all (I’ve carefully worded that!). Even with overcast skies above, we all had a good time sweeping nets through the burns and finding plenty of insects that we could inspect in pots to identify using a field key. Nick collected a couple to look at under the microscope, included in our collection were a Wollaston’s Water Boatman, a Soft-haired Water Beetle, and a rather striking Reed Beetle, to name a few. It also turned out to be a surprisingly good spot for non-aquatic insect life as a quick sweep above the vegetation resulted in a good catch of flies and a micro moth (Bactra lancealana). With the weather warming up on the island, the insect life is, quite literally, buzzing!

Wollaston’s Water Boatman, Soft-haired Water Beetle, Reed Beetle under a microscope (by Nick Riddiford). A pooter with the sweep net collection of flies and moth (by Sally Kunzig).

Back to seabirds and June is the month of counting! This year was a full island count for our Gannets, requiring both Alex and Georgia to walk along the north-west cliffs and count the parts of the Gannetries that are visible from land, then on one of the days we were out on the boat, the final part of the count could be conducted from sea. We also counted Guillemots at specific ledges around the island to get a population figure. This required all four of us to return to the same monitoring spots seven times over the first two weeks of the month to get an average. The first part of the Fulmar productivity monitoring also took place at the beginning of the month. We again went back to plots that have been monitored every year for the past few decades, and this time we counted apparently occupied nests. We’ll check back on the Fulmars later in August once the chicks have hatched and grown and see which of the nests we marked were successful!

Georgia counting Gannets from the boat, the Fulmar nest plot in North Haven, the observatory team in the boat around the north coast, Guillemots on ledges in South Ramnigeo (by Sally Kunzig).

Nest counts were also carried out for all our ground-nesting seabirds, Great Skuas (Bonxie), Arctic Skuas (Scootie Alan) and Arctic Terns (Tirrick), and I am pleased to report that there is not one nice bird amongst them! They are all highly protective of their eggs and young, and as such decide that dive-bombing any potential predators that wander near their nest is the best thing to do. Now this works fantastically as a sheep deterrent, the problem only arises when a biologist, such as myself, is trying their best to locate a small scrape in the heath where a Bonxie has laid their eggs, whilst getting showered in waste and my cap knocked off by the parents trying to shoo me away! The Bonxies are by far the worst of the three as you’re unlikely to leave a territory unscathed. If you can’t get the googly-eyes-on-a-stick headband, as previous observatory staff had (have you been following our social media posts? click here), then the next best thing is just to stick your hand above your head - a Bonxie high-five is much kinder! The Arctic Skuas, though more precise if they decide to dive-bomb, often use a broken wing display as a distraction, to try and remove you from their nesting territory. Because the Arctic Terns are in such a close-knit colony we don’t map their nests like we do with both skuas. Instead, we walk through the colony in a very tight line, pointing out each nest that we can see and then use the count of apparently occupied nests as a population count. As we do so, all the adults get up and start shouting and dive-bombing us. Fortunately, there are only a few that “accidentally” hit the top of our heads, though it’s best not to do this fieldwork if you already have a headache!

Georgia and Alex in search of an Arctic Skua nest (by Sally Kunzig).

Although the number of Bonxies dropped considerably due to bird flu, around a 70% decline on Fair Isle, it was great to see many of the nests we surveyed already hatching out and healthy-looking chicks wandering around. The Arctic Terns seem to be having a good year so far, with just under 300 nests found in the colony, and there were already a couple of chicks out – we’ll be back in July to ring the chicks we can find! While we were out we caught a retrap adult Arctic Tern, ringed on Fair Isle as a chick in either 1996/97 – old enough to be part of the obs team!

Recently hatched Bonxie in the nest with an egg, the aftermath of Bonxie nest mapping (note I’m still smiling...just!), Alex with an Arctic Tern dive bombing from above, and a recently hatched Arctic Tern in the nest with an egg (by Sally Kunzig).

Does it sound like we got up to enough in June? The warm weather did leave just enough time for me to dip my toes in the sun-warmed waters of Gunglesund, the tidal pool that is also used as a swimming pool on Fair Isle. I can say it was well worth a dip! Hopefully the sun keeps shining, the chicks keep hatching and I can walk through the island without it looking like I’ve been in a bad paint mishap!

Sally in front of Gunglesund (by Sally Kunzig), and a group of intrepid swimmers in Gunglesund (by Eileen Thompson).

Written by Sally Kunzig, Ranger

The setting sun on the summer solstice at North Light (by Sally Kunzig)


May round-up

May saw the start of new events, new cruises and unfortunately limited new weather. But even with predominantly north westerlies hitting Fair Isle, a few rarities, along with plenty of new people (in the shape of cruise passengers) kept us quite busy!

I’ve been back to the school a couple of times now, first to finish constructing the bug hotel. After collecting all the materials with me at the end of last month, the kids got busy making little ‘pods’ of sticks and dried grass in tubes, to go into the hotel once the pallet was cut up and put in place. I came back to add the finishing touches to the construction, some stones at the bottom, some more material in between the pods, and then some moss to top it all off! Now the weather's warming up (a little!) we’ll have to check back in and see who’s staying in there.

All the children making the ‘pods’ [by Gillian Maxwell], all of us filling the pallet [by George], and the final product! [By Sally Kunzig]

With the increase in temperature a lot of flowers are now in bloom here. Almost out of my own curiosity, I suggested a plant and flower ID and pressing activity. With both my plant guides in hand, I was fortunate to find them mostly redundant as Freyja, the eldest student in the school, really knows her stuff and almost every plant we came across, she was able to identify! It’s safe to say I was definitely being taught, rather than teaching, this time - thank you Freyja! It’s worth noting that Fair Isle is home to many rare species of plants, and that picking them would not only be counterintuitive, but not allowed in some parts of the isle as it’s a Special Area of Conservation. We kept well within the limits, with Freyja to guide us, and only picking one flower from a patch of flowers, rather than removing individuals from an area where they aren’t abundant. Back at the school, the kids organised the samples onto pressing paper, and they’re currently sitting under a couple of heavy books. Once pressed, they’ll be laminated to keep on show, and used for identification in future years.

The kids and Sally collecting flowers [by Gillian Maxwell], the final collection of plants [by Gillian Maxwell], Cuckooflower [by Sally Kunzig]

I did get a chance to show off my own expertise with the kids at the end of the month. A couple years ago I assisted on a citizen science project called the Big Seaweed Search. Anyone around the UK with access to a rocky shore is able to take part, and the kids agreed it was time to add Fair Isle to the map! We headed down to Muckle Uri Geo at low tide, and formed a survey line to find all the different species of seaweed that reside on the rocks and in the tide pools. We found 6 different species of seaweed on the shore that we were looking for in the guides, and also saw that a couple of the wrack species had hybridised making some identification a little more tricky! I’m happy to say that the kids (and teacher!) all left with a greater knowledge of the seaweeds we find here, and had assisted in a citizen science project!

Sally and the kids in Muckle Uri Geo seaweed spotting [by Gillian Maxwell]

The cruise ships have been coming in thick and fast this last month. We had eight ships actually landing during the month. The smallest was the first arrival of Greg Mortimer bringing only 41 passengers ashore, in comparison the largest was Seabourn Venture with 170 passengers visiting Fair Isle. My role with cruise ships is taking passengers (and guides) on a bird walk up Buness to see the puffins there up close, as well as informing them about the bird observatory and island life. Most years, puffins on the edge of cliffs is a guarantee, and fortunately there have been birds flying around and ducking in and out of burrows for all to see. However this year, although we saw great numbers of puffins back on land earlier in April, they have yet to decide to lounge around on the edge of the cliffs, instead choosing to be rafting on the water at the base of the cliffs, or even just heading back out to sea! Luckily puffins here are very curious to see what the group of people in the same colour jackets are doing at the top of the cliff, so most of the visits have had a steady stream of puffins returning to the tops of cliffs to amuse the guests - thankfully!

Cruise ship passengers and the first puffin of the morning, another cruise ship visit with more puffins on Buness, Greg Mortimer moored outside North Haven and Seabourn Venture with a zodiac in North Haven [by Sally Kunzig]

Ask anyone who was on Fair Isle this May what the best day was and I think they’d all collectively say the 22nd! The day itself didn’t look like much, a little calmer in the winds compared to the previous week, but I can safely say that the obs team were gunning for something exciting, as the majority of May has seen westerlies ploughing through the island, making it quite tricky for any rarities to arrive. Or so we thought. The morning trap round brought the first surprise – a Western Subalpine Warbler! Already in high spirits for the day, the rest of the team set off for census. Just before midday the shout went out that there were two bull Orca coasting along the east cliffs. We later find out that this was Hulk and Nótt, two bulls that have visited Fair Isle a handful of times before. All of us rushed to various points along the south east coastline and were able to get some fantastic views of these magnificent creatures. It was a real treat and the first time I had seen an Orca, so I was especially pleased! After following them south along the cliffs, and running much more than any of us really want to, Hulk and Nótt were last seen heading south out of South Harbour, and later that day picked up off Orkney. Five minutes into having lunch and Alex gets a message there's an unringed Subalpine Warbler sp. hanging around Setter, so very quickly the team head out again to trap it before resuming census. We’re still waiting to hear back about DNA confirmation of the species of the second Subalpine, but we narrowed it down to between Western and Moltoni’s. Census resumes and I don’t think anyone expected anything else interesting to appear…the message ‘SNOWY OWL’ pops up in the group chat, and suddenly I'm picking up everyone that will fit in the car to head up to see the owl at Homisdale. Alex was the one to spot it, the rest of the obs team were second on the scene, but it quickly turned into the biggest twitch that the island has seen for the last few years. Over 20 people came up to see the bird, which was quite understandable, it was a pristine adult male, a bright gleaming white spot among the dark vegetation in the north. We all decided then that was quite enough for the day, the rest of the team finished census around 6pm, potentially one of the longest and most broken up census that’s happened in quite a while. Absolutely worth it! Keep checking our ‘Latest sightings’ page to get these updates daily!

Alex and Georgia watching Hulk and Nótt off Meoness [by Patrick Safford], the big twitch for the Snowy owl [by Georgia Platt]

May also saw our first changeover of volunteers. Patrick departed on the 24th and Dan arrived on the 29th, to finish spring census and assist in the start of seabird work. So far we’ve already done our first visit to the Razorbills down at Easter Lother, which required Alex, Georgia and I to don our harnesses and traverse the via ferrata system. Razorbill nest locations were mapped out by locating an egg, or an adult incubating one. We found 40 nests and we’ll be back next month to ring and count chicks, to get an estimate of success and productivity at the site. Similarly, the Gannet and Guillemot productivity monitoring has started. Georgia has been out to the north-west cliffs to map and check how many Gannets are on nests, hopefully incubating, and when the chicks arrive, how many of them fledge. I’ve got the Guillemots, checking for the same things, I just fortunately don’t have to hike up the west cliffs to see them! Guillemots have a much shorter incubation and chick rearing period to Gannets, so I’m visiting them every 2-3 days, compared to Georgia visiting the Gannets every 7-10 days. Other counts (Shags etc) have started but the first two weeks of June will see the majority of seabird monitoring begin.

First survey of Da Swadin Guillemots, and Sally, Alex and Georgia in the Easter Lother Razorbill nest plot, a Razorbill nest (egg) and adult, and a close up Razorbill egg [by Sally Kunzig]

Although the seabirds are on eggs, some of our waders have already hatched. Lapwings are one the first chicks of the season, as such they’re also the first chicks to ring! Many wader chicks have a very camouflaged downy feather when they first hatch, to give them extra protection hiding in the wetlands. Lapwing chicks are no different, so require us to stand a couple of fields away and view the chicks first at a distance, to get an idea for where they are. Then when we get into the field with the chicks, if we can’t find where they’ve hunkered down to not be seen, we can use the thermal scope to (hopefully) pick them out of the grass and mud. So far we think we’ve ringed chicks from over half the broods on the island, a total of 24 chicks. A couple more warmish days in the future should mean we can find and ring chicks in the final couple of broods left!

Sally and Georgia ringing Lapwing chicks [by Patrick Safford], a Lapwing chick [by Sally Kunzig]

And, in observatory news, the modules have started to arrive back on Fair Isle! We’ve been seeing workmen getting ready to start affixing them to the building and lots more large vehicles on the island to move the modules across the haven. Fingers crossed the weather stays nice to keep up the good work!

Written by Sally Kunzig, Ranger. All photos used with permission.
Orca and Snowy Owl [Sally Kunzig]


April round-up

Hello everyone! We’re back! I’m Sally, the ranger for this year and I hope to give everyone reading this a bit of an insight into the current bird-obs lifestyle here in Fair Isle. While we’re now in May, right in the midst of spring migration, and even the start of seabird monitoring, this post is a round-up of what we’ve been getting up to since the full team made it to Fair Isle at the end of March.

My first view of Fair Isle, and South Lighthouse (by Sally)

Alex, our acting warden, and Georgia, our assistant warden, have returned this spring making this their 4th year on Fair Isle! They arrived on the 22nd of March, in classic Fair Isle style, with rain and gale force winds! As the bird observatory building is still under construction, this is also the 4th season having the team living down at South Lighthouse. I arrived a couple of days later on the 27th of March, in much calmer (if a bit colder) conditions. I spent the first week or so familiarising myself with Fair Isle, being guided around the crofts, having a talk at the museum and shown where all the biosecurity boxes are on the island (more on that in a bit!). It’s very easy to see the beauty of Fair Isle, and I’m excited to see all the little changes that happen with the coming of warmer weather!

The 31st of March saw our final team member arrive - Patrick, our long-term volunteer, who will be staying with us until the end of spring census. With the whole team in Isle, the first two days of April were spent tracing the 3 census routes on the island, where I quickly realised there are more place names on this island than I am likely to visit places in my life! The map with all the names of each geo and cliff on the island has been very useful! If you’ve been following our updates on the ‘Latest Sightings’ page, you will have seen our year list soar through the month of April. At the end of March we had 85 species on our year list, and by the end of April we reached 129!

Warden team after going through the SE census route, and looking into Swarzie Geo (by Sally)

With census rolling on, calm afternoons became ‘repairs and maintenance’ time. Of the 8 Heligoland traps on the island, only 4 are currently in use, but even they needed a bit of TLC after the winter storms. A lot of stitching of panels and nailing them in place was done on our Plantation trap, now with all the side pieces complete and only the roof to go! We reinflated our semi-rigid boat that we use to get closer to our seabird populations for monitoring. As simple as saying ‘we inflated the boat’ sounds, it required us to put the floor in first, which took a surprising amount of thinking to work out how. Luckily YouTube and older models’ manuals were our saviour - as was a good hard kick! - and the boat is happily in the water. There was even a good enough weather window for Alex and Georgia to take it out on a test drive! We also got out and fixed the fence around our local oysterplant patch in Muckle Uri Geo near South Light. This fence has been put up for over 20 years to maintain and increase the oysterplant patch by not letting the sheep graze on it. Looking at the current fence size compared to one in 2001 showed us that the area that the oysterplant grows in has almost doubled since then (see more here). If you’re not currently following us on social media, then you’re missing out on our #FairIsleFriday posts, where I have a look through our old photos to showcase different parts of Fair Isle’s history, with the Obs and without!

Georgia rolling out the oysterplant sheep fence, and Georgia and Alex mending the Plantation trap (by Sally). Alex pointing back to Buness on the boat (by Georgia).

Some seabird monitoring kicked off in April with a couple of early mornings where we each took a section of the east cliffs to shout “TYSTIE!” down them, intriguing every tystie in the area onto the water so we can count them, as well as confusing every other animal in the vicinity! The earliest count was on a particularly swelly day, hence going out for a second time and getting a total of 194 breeding plumage birds. Pretty consistent numbers with recent years, a good sign! Also in preparation for other seabird monitoring to start again, we had our annual check of our Via Ferrata cliff access systems. After an equipment training session for Patrick and I, we were each led down a cliff system by Will, who was checking the system as we went. Ever grateful I have a head for heights, it was a great experience to go down the systems just to see the sights! Looking forward to the next time where it will be to look at seabirds!

Via ferrata system at Gunnawark with Alex Penn, and view from the bottom of Gunnawark (by Sally)

On the ranger side of things, I’ve been preparing myself for the tourist season by visiting the museum on the island and learning about some of the fantastic history here. I’m constantly astounded by the ingenuity of all the islanders throughout history, what with people handmaking all the furniture pieces with great detailing and artistry, or creating winch and pulley systems for getting sheep (and people) up and down Sheep Rock (though why someone decided that was perfect pastureland is beyond me!), the absolutely gorgeous designs in Fair Isle knitted products, and the bravery of everyone that assisted with all the numerous shipwrecks that have occurred throughout the ages. There are some fantastic stories to be told from the museum here, and if you’re ever visiting Fair Isle, I would highly recommend a stop there! Apart from history, I’ve also been brushing up on my local flora and fauna knowledge. Now that some of our plants are starting to flower it’s getting a lot easier to use my guidebook! On the non-birdy fauna side of things, we have a Shorewatch site here at South Light where I’ve been conducting regular watches for cetaceans (and other marine mammals). Unfortunately, even with calm seas, the only cetaceans so far have been a couple of harbour porpoises (outside of survey effort time, spotted by Patrick). I’m looking forward to later in the season, with hopefully more calm seas, and more fins in the water. I’ve also performed a couple of grey seal counts along the SW cliffs to see if there’s much change in our population when it’s not pupping season. The first count was a particularly busy day with Muckle Geo o’ Hoini having nearly 100 seals hauled out on the beach!

Muckle Geo o’ Hoini grey seal haul out, looking for fins off South Light, and some of our first flowering thrift (by Sally)

The biosecurity monitoring has been running throughout the winter months, but now the ranger is back in Fair Isle I get to take over for the summer months. We have Fair Isle field mice and house mice present on the island, not causing any problems for our breeding birds. Monitoring boxes have been placed around potential access points to the island to ensure that if any harmful invasive non-native species get onto the island (i.e. rats), we will quickly be able to assess their whereabouts and enact a plan to eradicate them. Fortunately, both the March and April checks have shown no sign of anything unexpected - just different mice species enjoying some chocolate flavoured wax!

An oh so glamorous biosecurity box! (by Sally)

As the ranger, I also get to help out with the school, planning some outdoor educational sessions and assisting where I can. It was great to join in last week with Da Voar Redd Up, Shetland’s clean-up and litter picking event. I joined a couple of the teaching staff and the three eldest schoolchildren in going around the crofts and down to the geos around Skadan (by South Light), collecting all the bruck that we found in all the burns, ditches and on the beach. We also conducted a marine litter survey of all the litter that was found on the beaches. Some notable finds are in the images below. After a quick pit-stop at Houll for cakes (thank you Eileen!) and being joined by the nursery kids, we finished up back at the school with a total of six bin bags filled with bruck! This week we’ve started a new project, building a bug hotel at the school, hopefully to be populated with lots of interesting beasties - more news on that later in the year.

A large plastic drinks bottle from potentially Russia, a cardboard bottle from the USA and a boot! (by Sally)

Beach cleaning at Muckle Uri Geo, and beach cleaning at South Harbour (by Pat Thomson). Full Da Voar Redd Up team heading back to school (by Sally)

I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re looking forward to see what May brings. We’ve already had a couple of rare sightings (and rings) in the books, and a week of easterlies can only be good news, right? More tourists and the arrival of cruise ships are new events for this month to come, fingers crossed for some good weather too!

Great end to the month having puffins back on land and starting their nesting building (by Sally)

Written by Sally Kunzig, Ranger. All photos used with permission.