Fair Isle  birders mecca

Looking back on 1995-1996, there is one word that comes to mind: change. In 1995 life was simple. About the only things on my mind were birding and playing soccer with friends after school. Watching Ajax every week on television was a delight; the team did not lose a single match all season in the Dutch competition and even won the European Cup. Picking a favourite player from such a great selection was hard, but Jari Litmanen certainly ranked high. Another sports hero of mine was Miguel Indurain, who in 1995 became the fourth rider ever to win the Tour de France five times. I admired his strength and style and strongly disagreed with those who criticised him for being cold and calculating. On many July afternoons, I daydreamed about visiting the beautiful landscapes the riders were racing through – to go birding of course.

In the spring of 1996, Ajax won the national title again, but this time the euphoria was less intense. A few weeks later, I had finished high school and was getting ready for university. We still often played soccer on the field next to school, but that was about to change. What is more, I was officially an adult now and had planned my first birding trip abroad. In the evening of 6 July – the day Indurain cracked and lost (too) much time in the first mountain stage of the 1996 Tour – I took a ferry to visit Magnus Robb and Ilse Schrama who then lived in Edinburgh. When Dutch tennis player Richard Krajicek won the men’s single title at Wimbledon the next day, I was still excited about hearing Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla for the first time in my life.

That trip to Scotland and northern England was just wonderful. Not only did I see nine bird species for the first time – Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis being the most unexpected addition (Waterside, Cumbria, England, 14 July, Bottomley 1996) – the scenery was even more impressive. One day we were surrounded by thousands of seabirds near the immense gannetry of Bass Rock on the East Lothian coast, the next saw us working hard for only a few birds (Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta and Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis among them) up in the cloudy Cairngorms.
A year later, Magnus and I made another trip to Scotland, this time to North Ronaldsay – the north-easternmost of the islands of Orkney – where we stayed with the friendly and welcoming staff of the bird observatory. We arrived in the morning of 15 September 1997, having travelled the last c 53 km in a light aircraft, which was apparently also used as an ambulance service. We were hoping for a fall of passerines and maybe a rarity or two, but unfortunately the weather conditions were wrong; ideal winds for such arrivals are between south-east and north-east, not strong westerlies. On most days, we thus spent much time seawatching, which I also enjoyed. At times, a spectacular passage of seabirds (including hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters Ardenna grisea) emptying out of the North Sea could be observed at close quarters. Watching both British Hydrobates pelagicus and Leach’s Storm Petrels H leucorhous was certainly one of the highlights for me. The most interesting passerines that made it to the island were large and dark redpolls, probably Greenland Redpolls Acanthis flammea rostrata (cf Reid & Riddington 1998). We also saw a Pallas’s Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus – a 19th century stuffed specimen at Holland House.

North Ronaldsay really is a great place for birding, but it will probably always be overshadowed by neighbouring Fair Isle. From our seawatch point it was only c 43 km to the north-east to get there and, no matter how rough the sea, I would definitely make the crossing if there was a ferry. It was not that Fair Isle was swamped by large numbers of migrant birds at that moment, but the island is like holy ground for birders. It is a small and sparsely vegetated island with cliffs of up to c 180 m above sea level, halfway between Orkney and (the rest of) Shetland. Its geographical location and isolation make it ideally situated for regular migrant arrivals. Its small size and lack of cover mean that a relatively large portion of those birds will be discovered. Its track record of hosting vagrant species is absolutely legendary.

A lot has already been written about Fair Isle and its birds. The personal account by Roger Riddington (2000) is one beautiful example. I will not try to do the same here, as I would not even know where to start. All I know is that I want to visit Fair Isle myself. After all, I do not know how much longer I will be able to cope with all those incredible photographs of Lanceolated Warblers Locustella lanceolata, Pechora Pipits Anthus gustavi and who knows what, taken there year after year. 

Orkney intobirding.com

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Published 6 March 2018