Fair Isle Daze

Goldcrest.  Fair Island. Photo:  Rebecca Nason

by Rebecca Nason on October 28, 2010 · 2 comments

in Birding Western Palearctic

I am currently on my favourite Isle, a place which over the last 7 years has become my second home – Fair Isle. Fair Isle is a tiny Island, Britain’s remotest, inhabited Island – being approximately 3 miles long by 1.5 miles wide & is the most Southerly Isle of the Shetland Islands, sandwiched between Shetland mainland (25 miles away) & Orkney. The Island boasts a small (under 70 folk) thriving crofting community & is famous worldwide for producing Fair Isle knitting patterns.

Fair Isle holds nationally & internationally important populations of Seabirds, with 18 different species breeding on the Island, many in high densities. From April to August the cliffs are alive with the sight, smell & sound of thousands of Fulmar, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Gannet, Puffin & Shags, whilst on the moorland, Arctic & Great Skua’s hold territories & Arctic Terns defend their small colonies. Fair Isle is split into the flatter more fertile land to the South where all the crofts exist, & the rugged moorland terrain to the North which is dominated by high 200ft + cliffs & lots of hill sheep!

The North is also home to the famous Fair Isle Bird Observatory. For more than 50 years, Fair Isle Bird Observatory has monitored & carried out scientific research on the Island’s spectacular seabird breeding colonies & also on bird migration – for it has long been acknowledged as a true hot spot for bird migration & a key landfall site for vagrant species during Spring & Autumn migration. Due to it’s juxtaposition, Fair Isle is arguably the best location in the UK for rare birds, with an enviable list of firsts for Britain & several firsts for the Western Palearctic (like the Rufous-tailed Robin & Chestnut-eared Bunting in October 2004!) – it is a birders paradise! Fair Isle is perhaps more commonly associated with rare birds from the East, though weather depending it can also come up trumps with American vagrants. It is the unpredictable which makes birding Fair Isle, particularly in the Autumn so exciting & different, you just never know what’s going to be around the next Geo or next croft garden. Birding Fair Isle is not for the faint-hearted however, for the Island, especially in the Autumn is notorious for often appalling weather conditions, with high winds & rain a common & often prolonged feature! You have to work for your birds but it’s great to be birding without the crowds, a big twitch rarely sees more than 20 birders present at one time & you can often be alone with mega birds!

I worked at the Bird Observatory for 2 years as Seabird Officer/Assistant Warden in 2003/2004 & have returned to Fair Isle 2 or 3 times a year since on long holidays, in the Spring for migration, in the Summer for Seabird ringing & in the Autumn for a fusion of rarity hunting, bird photography & socializing.

The Observatory was pulled down in 2009 & a fabulous, modern spacious new building costing a cool £4.5 million pounds opened it’s doors for guests & staff this Spring. The Observatory is unique in offering attractive guest house style, en-suite, high quality accommodation & all meals for visitors from May to end October (see www.fairislebirdobs.co.uk) alongside the seasonal daily running of a busy scientific research centre. Guests can take part in some bird activities such as early morning trap rounds & bird ringing & can participate in the evening bird log call. In the Autumn & Spring all birds (excluding resident birds) are censused throughout the Island by the Warden & the 2 Assistant Wardens. For me, Fair Isle is an escape from the hustle, bustle & stress of life in the fast lane in the South of England & a place I can happily immerse myself in my passions for birding & bird photography, in a stunning, remote location.

The only downside right now – is that the internet connections are so poor this week on ‘Britain’s most isolated inhabited Island’ that I am unable to add the images I was to upload to my first ever post on this exciting new blog! Until next week . . . .

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dawn October 30, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I know how it feels to have poor internet..We travel full time in an RV and sometimes I have little to none.
I look forward to more of your posts and hope that the internet gods are agreeable and you are able to upload photos! Happy Birding!


Kenn Kaufman October 31, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Loved your description of Fair Isle. And I’m a huge fan of your photography, having enjoyed many of your beautiful images on your “Shetland Exposure” blog; looking forward to seeing some of your work here as well.


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