In many ways, the month on Fair Isle where anything is possible. Early in the month brings passage waders, including Little Stint and perhaps Curlew Sandpipers and can also see some impressive rarities, that have included Eastern Olivaceous Warbler. A lot of passage migrants have gone through by September, so it can be weather dependant, although with the right conditions, falls of warblers and chats can be impressive and oddities can turn up at any time, with Common Rosefinch and Wryneck still passing early in the month.
By mid-September, any hint of good weather is likely to produce birds, but even in less favourable conditions it is likely that things will arrive. The rarity list is impressive in the last two weeks of the month, with Lanceolated Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Pallid Harrier, Arctic Warbler, Citrine Wagtail, Red-flanked Bluetail, White’s Thrush, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Paddyfield Warbler, Pechora Pipit and Red-throated Pipit all realistically on the radar, although Great Snipe has become much scarcer in the last couple of decades. Scarcities appear with some frequency, including the now, no-longer-scarce Yellow-browed Warbler. From mid-month, the first Yellow-brows will appear (although arrival dates are getting earlier) with numbers building rapidly in favourable conditions to the point where it can be the commonest warbler on the island later in the month.
By late September, there is a shift in the commoner migrants, with Redwings and Blackbirds starting to arrive, flocks of Siskins and Lapland Buntings appearing and Little Bunting, Richard’s Pipit and Red-breasted Flycatcher often becoming more frequent.
Although most visitors hope for easterlies, all is not lost if the wind comes from across the Atlantic, with September having seen records of Magnolia Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole, Bobolink, Swainson’s Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush and Buff-bellied Pipit.
September can also be an excellent month for cetacean sightings, with Killer Whales, Minke Whales and three species of dolphin regularly recorded.
Early October sees a similar situation to late September, there are birds coming through and a whole host of possibilities could arrive. By the end of the first week, the peak periods for some of the specialities are starting to come to an end and there is more of a ‘late autumn’ feel to things. By this time, Blackcaps, thrushes, Snow Buntings, Jack Snipes and wildfowl are on the move, with impressive numbers of Greylags, Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans most likely when the wind is in the north-west.
Olive-backed Pipits are possible from mid-September, but several can arrive at once in October, with a peak in mid-month. Robins and Chiffchaffs are on the move, large numbers of these may bring rarities with them including perhaps Red-flanked Bluetail or Dusky Warbler. Redwings, Goldcrest, and Brambling can move in large numbers at this time of year, whilst Great Grey Shrike and Great Spotted Woodpeckers show their annual peak at this time.
By late October, many of the commoner species have gone and the peaks for most of the scarcities have passed, but the promise of the absolute mega is always there. Siberian Rubythroat shows a cluster of five records between 17th-23rd, with the latter date also hosting Rufous-tailed Robin. The 23rd is quite a date nationally, with Britain’s first Siberian Blue Robin found at Minsmere in 2000 on that date (although the other three records are all in early October, from Fair Isle’s neighbours North Ronaldsay and Foula), whilst Shetland has had Cape May Warbler and Chestnut-eared Bunting on the same date in recent years and a Black-billed Cuckoo made landfall on North Ronaldsay on 23rd October 2014.
Even without the rarities though, this time of the year has some of the most exciting birding as huge numbers of thrushes can make landfall on the island, Woodcocks can erupt from cover across the island and ‘Siberian Chiffchaffs’ can appear in decent numbers. Redpolls and, especially, 'Northern Bullfinches' can appear in large numbers, although both species occur erratically, as does Waxwing, whilst a few late Black Redstarts, Ring Ouzels and Lesser Whitethroats add to the variety, with species such as Pallas’s Warbler and Little Grebe still possible and Pine Bunting records peaking at this time.
Early November can still see huge numbers of thrushes arriving and Woodcock can peak at this time, whilst Woodlark, Shorelark, Dipper, 'Northern Bullfinch' and Waxwing are amongst the more unusual species that fairly frequently occur at this time. Wildfowl are still on the move, with Greylags often peaking in this month, whilst easterly winds can see arrivals of Bean and White-fronted Geese. Rough-legged Buzzard and Hen Harrier are amongst the raptors that are still on the move, whilst Long-eared Owl and Water Rail are amongst the species that can peak at this point. There have been some big rarities early in the month including Crested Lark, Little Swift and Little Bustard, although these have generally been few and far between.
From mid-month, most migration has slowed down, although odd late migrants can still turn up. Stormy weather can bring large concentrations of gulls, often including several Glaucous Gulls (although the peak of 400 from November 1965 seems unlikely to be repeated!) and it is often extreme conditions that also brings other highlights at this time, including Grey Phalarope, Little Auks and perhaps a grebe.
Very much like January, but without the excitement of the new year-list! Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are still possible, as is the occasional Little Auk. The wintering Greylag flock is worth checking for the odd straggler of other species, but unless you’re extremely lucky with Gyr Falcon, Ivory Gull or Blue Tit, the best to aim for is probably Coot, Goosander or Velvet Scoter.
All these photographs were taken on Fair Isle.
Steve Arlow has been a regular visitor to Fair Isle Bird Observatory since 2011, and a selection of his photographs are included on this page. More of his first-class images from his recent visits to Fair Isle can be browsed on his website.