Fair Isle Bird Observatory & Guesthouse

The birding calendar on Fair Isle

"When should I visit Fair Isle?" is an often-asked question. The simple answer is that each season has its own characteristic array of species and a different range of rarities can be hoped for at each time of the year. The following month-by-month guide gives an overview of just a selection of the birds that can occur on Fair Isle at different times of the year. Ultimately, it's then all in the hands of the weather!

January

It can be a rather quiet time of year for birding, with the short day lengths and often inclement weather not helping matters and there being few observers other than the island’s residents to find the few birds that do turn up. That said, January sees the start of the year list, which is always an exciting time, although there will usually have been less than 60 species recorded by the end of the month.

Highlights can be the odd Glaucous or Iceland Gull, particularly in stormy weather, and the wintering flock of Greylags can occasionally drag in a scarcer species. Past highlights have included Great Bustard (11th January 1970) and Harlequin (11th January 1965), but most years the best that can be hoped for is the addition of Coot, Goosander or something of that ilk to the year list.

By the end of the month, the first Oystercatchers have often returned, the first tenuous reminder that the cold and darkness won’t last forever.

February

February sees little improvement, although Stonechats may appear towards the end of the month and Ringed Plover and Skylarks are amongst the earlier birds to start making their way back north. There are very few past highlights, although a couple of Gyr Falcons have been noted and an Ivory Gull (9th February 1952) has been recorded. The occasional influx of storm-driven Kittiwakes, perhaps gives hope that a Ross’s Gull could eventually make an appearance in the surf of South Harbour, but Iceland Gull is a better bet.

Gannets should be back on the stacks and cliffs by the end of the month, whilst Guillemots will be offshore and occasionally coming and going from their ledges.

March

Whilst the start of the month is very much still winter in a birding sense, the first week usually sees the first frogspawn noted. Skylarks, Meadow Pipits, Ringed Plovers, and Oystercatchers will all be building up, Meadow Pipits should start to make their way back to the island and the breeding Twite will have returned from their winter in Orkney.

Wildfowl are on the move in March and there are often records of species which are quite scarce on Fair Isle, including Velvet Scoter or Bean Goose, whilst Garganey can arrive in March very occasionally.

By mid-month any hints of easterlies, or even calm weather, will often see the start of some light passage, with thrushes, Robins, Goldcrests, Stonechats and Black Redstarts the most likely species to be recorded. Chiffchaffs have never been recorded before 12th and in some years might not arrive in March at all, but by the last week of the month there can be impressive falls of Robins, Dunnocks, and thrushes. Although it is still generally considered too early for these falls to bring ‘proper’ rarities, a Red-flanked Bluetail in late March 2014 showed that there is some promise, whilst more expected classic early scarcities at this time could include Great Grey Shrike, Hawfinch, Woodlark or perhaps Dipper.

Bonxies and Puffins have usually started to appear by the end of the month, whilst Guillemots will be regular on the cliffs and Razorbills are starting to be seen offshore.

A group of Killer Whales has often made an early spring visit in recent years, with scratches and scars on the individuals’ patches showing that the same animals are involved in different years.

April

The first signs of spring should be evident on the island as greens shoots start to appear amongst the brown of the winter-blasted vegetation, garden flowers are in bloom and buds appear on the bushes and trees.

Puffins and Bonxies appearing in greater numbers are also a sign of spring on the way, with the Puffins starting to settle on land from mid-month. Other auks will be on the cliffs regularly and the delightful whistling displays of the Black Guillemots can be heard all round the coast on calm mornings. Gannets and Shags will have eggs from early in the month and by the end of the month Arctic Skuas will be back.

Any migration in the early part of the month is likely to involve species that have wintered in western Europe, with Chaffinches, Bramblings and Blackbirds heading back to Scandinavia, whilst Mistle Thrush, Woodpigeon and perhaps even Stock Dove may add a bit of variety. Wheatears are the earliest of the long-distance migrants to appear, and should have made landfall by now.

By mid-month the year list could be advancing in leaps and bounds as the first examples of various warblers and other species start to appear. A wide variety of raptors have been recorded as the weather encourages northerly migration (including the only island record of Golden Eagle on 7th April 1961). Scarcities such as Hawfinch start to turn up with increasing frequency towards the end of the month, Short-toed Larks and Subalpine Warblers can also be hoped for as May approaches and some quality rarities can be possible as the month comes to an end. A repeat of the Magpie of 22nd April 1987 would be appreciated by island-listers, but more popular nationally would be another Song Sparrow (there having been three April records). Calandra Lark has twice appeared in late April, whilst Britain’s first Sandhill Crane was found on 26th April 1981 and Scotland’s second Dartford Warbler was an unexpected find on 29th April 2000. Probably the best ever April birding day on Fair Isle was 27th April 2014, when birds included Cretzschmar’s Bunting, ‘Caspian Stonechat’, ‘Western Subalpine Warbler’, three Short-toed Larks, Red-breasted Flycatcher, seven Wrynecks and Great Grey Shrike amongst many common migrants.

May

A month of great excitement as the last of the seabirds arrive (Arctic Terns are usually the final species to put in an appearance, although the nocturnal nature of Storm Petrels mask their arrival date), with the breeding season in full swing as the month progresses.

From a migration point of view, anything seems possible, with scarcities guaranteed, the chance of large falls of common species (although these are less frequent than in the past) and the possibility of rarities at any point.

The early part of May sees the peak for some species, including Ring Ouzel, Wheatear and Dotterel. Wader passage can include decent flocks of Purple Sandpipers early in the month, whilst Wood Sandpipers and Whimbrels peak in mid-month. Also in mid-month there is an increase in the chance of scarcities, as the peaks of Wrynecks and Bluethroats occur, whilst Redstarts, Whinchats, Willow Warblers and Pied Flycatchers can also be seen. One of the many nice things about birding Fair Isle in the spring is that, unlike a lot of the east coast of the UK, there’s no need for rain to drop migrants, as any breath of easterly wind can see birds stopping for a refuel after being pushed out across the North Sea. Hirundine passage can include Red-rumped Swallow, with a few pairs of Swallows occasionally stopping to breed on the island. Late May sees the peaks of Subalpine Warbler, Icterine Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, whilst Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Whitethroat and Spotted Flycatcher are also late May migrants. Collared Doves are a more unexpected late May migrant, whilst Turtle Dove and Cuckoo are also possibilities.

Classic May rarities with many records include Thrush Nightingale, Rustic Bunting and Red-throated Pipit, whilst White-throated Sparrow (two records), Collared Flycatcher (three records), Calandra Lark (three records) and Tawny Pipit (nine records) are amongst some of the many other rarities recorded this month. May ‘Megas’ include Caspian Plover (1st May 2008), Brown-headed Cowbird (8th May 2009), Steller’s Eider (9th May 1971), Hermit Thrush (13th May 2014), Thick-billed Warbler (16th May 2003), Yellow-rumped Warbler (18th May 1977), American Kestrel (25th May 1976) and Hudsonian Whimbrel (27th May 1977).

June

Spring passage often occurs well into the first half of the month if there are any easterlies, although it is usually evident from smaller numbers of scarce birds, rather than large falls, as the bulk of most migrants having already gone north. Typical late migrants include Quail, Marsh Warbler and Red-backed Shrike, whilst raptors including Honey-buzzard and Hobby are also often seen this month. Spring records of Blyth’s Reed Warbler peak in the first half of the month, with this species occurring in increasing frequency in recent years. If birds are still arriving, a rarity often comes with them at this time, with early June examples in previous years including Cretzschmar’s Bunting (two), Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Citril Finch.

Although migrants can turn up at any time, by mid-June there are usually only a very small number of new arrivals, although it is the peak time for Black-headed Buntings and surely a contender for a genuine wild Red-headed Bunting will turn up eventually. It’s always worth staying alert though, as a trap round on 30th June 2015 that produced Nightingale and ‘Western Subalpine Warbler’ proved, whilst a trap round on same date three years earlier included Paddyfield and Marsh Warbler!

June also sees the seabird breeding season at its peak, with most species hopefully on chicks. Seabird monitoring, census, ringing and other survey work means that the 20 hours or so of daylight are taken full advantage of by the wardening staff! Aside from the birds, the early part of the month also sees some wonderful display of flowers, whilst migrant insects can include good numbers of Silver-Y moths and various butterflies, although the variety of species is generally limited.

Late May and early June are always very popular with visitors keen to make the most of the migrants, breeding birds and island scenery at its finest – so book early if you’re planning a visit!

July

Guillemot and Razorbill chicks will hopefully start fledging early in the month and the populations of both species will have largely have departed by the end of July. Puffins tend to be amongst the species that are still present throughout the month, although the success of the seabird season will have a big impact on which species are still present as July begins to draw to a close.

At sea there is a decent chance of cetaceans and Basking Shark being seen, whilst Sooty and Manx Shearwaters may pass in small numbers. Arctic Tern numbers often build up as birds from other colonies start to arrive and they may bring rarer species with them. Migration on the land is usually more limited, with the occasional Common Rosefinch or Marsh Warbler about the best that can be generally hoped for, although Rose-coloured Starling is an outside bet and any irruption of Two-barred Crossbills in Norway is worth making note of as it can precede records from Fair Isle. Petrel ringing can see hundreds of Storm Petrels being trapped, with Leach’s Petrel recorded most years in variable numbers and Swinhoe’s Petrels being recorded during 2013-2014.

Waders may be on the move, with the first Ruff of the year often occurring at the end of the month and Swift flocks can move through.

August

Early August sees the excitement of autumn begin, with the first bright yellow juvenile Willow Warbler setting the wardening team's hearts fluttering. Barred Warblers can appear from the first week amongst the early migrants if the weather is suitable, but it is from mid-month that things start to get really interesting. Any decent spells of weather can bring good numbers of common migrants, including a variety of warblers, Tree Pipits and Pied Flycatchers and scarcities including Wrynecks, Barred Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and Wood Warblers. Classic rarities at this time include Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Citrine Wagtail and Thrush Nightingale. It was also the peak time for Aquatic Warblers, although this species is now a very rare visitor to Fair Isle. Recent years have also seen mid-August produce Pallid Harrier and Blyth’s Reed Warblers, whilst late in the month sees an increase in the variety of good birds available. Decent numbers of waders can include scarcities, or even something as rare as Red-necked Stint. Sykes’s Warbler has occurred twice in late August, whilst Booted Warblers have also been found several times at this time of year.

Puffins generally leave by the end of the first week of the month, and there will hopefully be plenty of juvenile skuas taking to the wing for the first time. Storm Petrel ringing often reaches a peak at the beginning of the month, whilst seawatching can bring shearwaters.

August may be the most overlooked month on Fair Isle by birding visitors, but the occurrence just over the sea in Norway of Grey-necked Bunting, Siberian Accentor, Masked Shrike, Western Orphean Warbler and Trumpeter Finch (amongst others) in the first couple of weeks of the month suggest that perhaps it’s worth a try (especially as there are often accommodation discounts available!).

September

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.

October

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 two records are both 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.

November

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.

December

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.

Photographs

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.