Rush of charter flights to remote Shetland island as rare species flock to birders’ haven
IT IS one of the world’s most prized havens for rare birds, attracting twitchers who travel thousands of miles just to make that one elusive sighting.
Now the Shetland island of Fair Isle is celebrating its best ever year for the number of species spotted, smashing a milestone that has stood for nearly a quarter of a century.
Birders on Britain’s most remote inhabited island recorded a “remarkable” 219 different species over the course of 2014, two more than the previous record of 217 set back in 1992.
In what is being described as one of the most successful years for ornithologists on the island, located halfway between the Shetland and Orkney archipelagos, the sightings included several firsts, as well as birds that have not been seen for decades. The influx of rare species saw birders charter private planes from around Britain to get to the island.
David Parnaby, the warden at Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO), a purpose-built centre to the north of the island, said: “Fair Isle has been so well studied for so long. Ornithologists first started coming here in the early 1900s to monitor the birds, and the migrants in particular, so to still be getting new species over a century on is quite remarkable.
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“Seeing rare birds and sharing them with visitors is always an exciting aspect of the job, and setting a new record with so many different species coming through made that bit more exciting.”
The year’s highlights included the arrival of several new species to Fair Isle, including the glossy ibis, a heron-like bird usually found in the Mediterranean region; the bridled tern, a rare Caribbean visitor; and the Moltoni’s warbler, only the fourth confirmed sighting of the bird on British soil.
Some species were sighted at the earliest time of the year in Fair Isle’s history, such as the red breasted flycatcher, which made an appearance on 27 April, and the red-spotted bluebird a few days later. The island also welcomed a barn owl in October, the first time it has been seen on Fair Isle since 1958.
The welter of rarities is partly due to prevalent south-easterly winds which helped bring birds to the island from across the North Sea. An area of high pressure across much of Europe in the spring also helped.
The sheer number of sightings helped contribute to a record year for visitors at the island’s observatory, a lynchpin of the island’s economy since 1948 which underwent an extensive £4 million rebuilding four years ago.
“We had a whole host of rarities and very good birds in the spring. We had people chartering planes from the south of England to Fair Isle,” Parnaby explained.
“Many Shetland birdwatchers spent a lot of time hopping on and off the island, I think they spent more time here than they have for the past decade.”
Parnaby said the record number of species formed part of a trend which is seeing greater numbers of extreme vagrants – birds found outside their usual migratory routes – turning up in Britain in recent years.
He added: “I think part of that is down to increased awareness. Birdwatching and birding are far more popular activities now and are far more mainstream than they were 30 or 40 years ago.
“Technology and things like Facebook have also helped immensely – there have been a few good birds found on Shetland by people posting pictures of birds they’ve found in their garden but they’re maybe not sure what it is.
“We’re lucky on Fair Isle that there’s such a long history of interest in birds. A lot of the islanders – even if they’re not birdwatchers – will often phone us and let us know about a bird.”