Guest Reviewer: Lee G R Evans

Available direct from Fair Isle Observatory Trust, Fair Isle Bird Observatory, Fair Isle, Shetland, ZE2 9JU – priced £12 – or free when you become a valued Friend of Fair Isle and Observatory member.

Fair Isle Bird Reports are always of a terrific standard and this one is no exception. In fact this one is a bumper edition, incorporating two years for the price of one. As I opened the envelope, I was taken aback by Rebecca Nason’s truly outstanding cover photo of a Fair Isle Wren on a frosty late autumn morning in the Obs garden – simply enthralling.

With so much to cram in, this report runs to 200 pages and although far from classic years by Fair Isle standards, still lots to ‘crow’ about and plenty of ‘rares’ to keep the mouth watered. As expected, this 62nd report for the Observatory follows the trusted format of previous ones, with the initial pages incorporating the Chairman’s Report, Warden’s Report, Dave Wheeler’s highly detailed meteorological data and the Monthly Summaries. With the building of a new Observatory campus, Deryk Shaw has rightly devoted five pages to this mammoth project and a photographic essay follows the construction with great detail.

Sadly, for Deryk and Hollie Shaw and the children and for the many Observatory visitors in recent years, these were to be Deryk’s final two years as warden. However, as to be expected with this emerald birding isle, there were plenty of rarity highlights to keep him occupied, including White-tailed Sea Eagle, Stone Curlew, American Green-winged Teal, Pechora Pipit, 2 Great Reed Warblers, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Two-barred Crossbill, BROWN-HEADED COWBIRD and BLACKPOLL WARBLER in 2009 and King Eider, White-tailed Sea Eagle, 2 Rough-legged Buzzards, AMERICAN BUFF-BELLIED PIPIT, 3 Red-flanked Bluetails, White’s Thrush, SWAINSON’S THRUSH, Black-throated Thrush, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler and a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW in 2010.2009 saw 198 species recorded and 2010 an impressive 210, with new additions for the isle involving a Green-winged Teal at Da Water on 25th April 2009 (fully documented by Nick Riddiford on page 59) and a Brown-headed Cowbird at Upper Stoneybrek from 8th-10th May 2009 (recounted by Deryk Shaw on pages 72-74). There are also a number of other detailed accounts of selected vagrants for the period including a River Warbler at Vaila’s Trees on 31st May 2009, the Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in the Plantation on 21st June 2009, a Blyth’s Reed Warbler at Lower Stoneybrek on 5th October 2009, a White’s Thrush in Hjukni Geo on 10th October 2009, the Swainson’s Thrush at Lower Stoneybrek on 15th September 2010, American Buff-bellied Pipit at the North Light from 20th-30th September 2009, a tan-striped White-throated Sparrow at the Observatory on 19th-20th May 2010 and a Blackpoll Warbler at Vaadel from 15th-17th October 2009 – all excellently written and full of interesting snippets.

The Systematic List on pages 79-139 forms the greater part of the report and as usual makes for some real fascinating reading. One forgets living down south the status of birds such as Mute Swan and Coal Tit on this far-flung outlet. The entries are straightforward, easy-on-the-eye and immediately factual and enhanced by Jack Ashton-Booth’s superb pencil field sketches and the odd table. Entries that caught my eye included the first Mandarin Duck for the island, the scarcity of Garganey, Moorhen and Coot on Fair Isle, as well as Firecrest, the 13th Great Crested Grebe and a most unusual calling male Corncrake. As usual, a most sumptuous and highly gripping selection of colour photographs adorn the central pages, including a high proportion not previously published either in the popular birding press or on the internet, including of course that annual Fair Isle specialty – the more-than-confiding Two-barred Crossbill. Also decorating the pages were no less than two species I have never seen in Britain – Brown-headed Cowbird and Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Three Red-flanked Bluetails in autumn 2010 also further proves the continuing status of this once mega-rare visitor from east of the Urals.Alan Bull’s Ringing Report appears on pages 140-153, summarising a total of 4124 birds of 105 species ringed in 2009 and 4948 of 106 species ringed in 2010. Two additions were made to the list – a Blackpoll Warbler in 2009 and a Carrion Crow in 2010. Common Starling was once again the most abundantly ringed species – in both years. Some interesting facets gleaned from the report include a Northern Fulmar of 37 years of age, a Great Skua wintering in Spain, a 5-year Long-eared Owl hit by car in Highland Scotland, a 7-year old Garden Warbler recovered in Norway and a 14-year-old Arctic Skua.

It is not just rare birds and scarce migrants that Fair Isle is famous for but also its breeding Seabirds and in traditional fashion, Deryk Shaw summarises these two year’s findings on pages 154-159. It makes seriously depressing reading, although Gannets continue to buck the trend. Shags were massively down in number, Common Guillemots down by 30% since just 2005, Razorbills down 60% and Atlantic Puffins down over 46% since 2001. We must find out more about Sandeels and act urgently.I was very pleased too to see the inclusion of the late Simon Aspinall and his brother Richard’s truly outstanding and inspirational British Birds paper on the Fair Isle Wren and its distribution, population and territory occupancy during 1950-2010. Simon first travelled to Fair Isle in 1987 when he became Assistant Warden for that year. He developed a particular affinity for the isle and returned regularly as a visitor. Simon tragically died on 31st October 2011 after a long and courageous battle with motor neurone disease and this paper was one of his last pieces of written work.

Adam Seward also enhances the final chapters of the report with his very intriguing study of the impact of climate change on a long-distance migratory passerine – the Northern Wheatear (pages 172-183), with pages 184-191 devoted to the other forms of wildlife (cetaceans, butterflies, etc) that were also recorded on the island in 2009 and 2010.

An excellent report in every way and an essential addition to the birding library.

Guest Reviewer: Lee G R Evans, British Birding Association, UK400 Club, Rare Birds Magazine, Ornithological Consultant and Conservationist