Tommy's "Wild Life" adventures. Lifestyle and island living insights on the most remote inhabited community in the UK.
Fair Isle, Shetland Islands, Scotland. - Population 45 Resident Islanders, 1200 Sheep, 20,000 Puffins and a few rare birds.
Tommy trying out the camera's timer in his new Christmas trousers, boots and hat.
old boats by the grave yard
"click" on photo to make it bigger Window in the Kirk
Thanks Santa for the new pocket Camera! Canon - Power Shot SX210 IS - 14mp - 14 times optical zoom. Photographs taken playing with it on Christmas day.
Christmas Bird List? odd mix of birds eating seeds on Christmas Day... Surprised by 6 Greenfinch and the one strange seed eating Turnstone has turned to 8? a 9th found eaten possible by that Peregrine I saw swooping through again today. Other birds of note. 2 Ravens, 5 hooded crows, Chaffinch, Lapwing, Snow Buntings, etc. a total 22 species seen in or from my garden on Christmas Day. No sign of the Waxwing I saw on the 24th
just playing with my new toy on Christmas... Cheers Tommy
When asked what I wanted for Christmas? I responded in jest “Lowri’s Fair hat”
Lowri’s hat is beautiful, a classic Fair Isle Fisherman’s Hat. It’s long and flops over with a big pom-pom in traditional colours and patterns. The hat was knitted by his great grandmother, Annie, who is retired from knitting for a living and now knits for her family.
It started me thinking what type of hat would Santa wear if he wore Fair Isle? I then ask Mati at Fair Isle Crafts Co-op if she had time to make me one from my suggestions. The hat should have a white band with a red Fair Isle pattern traditional but similar to a snow flake. The rest of the hat should be red with white patterns. I suggested the use of the classic Fair Isle tree pattern would look like Christmas trees and Mati agreed. We wanted to use small pattern at top slowly getting bigger like falling snow upon the trees. From there Mati completely designed and chose the patterns to perfection. Mati then skilfully hand framed knit the hat decreasing the stitches creating a traditional shape to a stunting result.
What Mati and I didn’t know was my wife Liz had already asked Elizabeth at Fair Isle Crafts to knit me a traditional Fair Isle hat for Christmas? Oops! The first hat Elizabeth knitted fit Liz perfectly and the red looks so good on her. So another larger hat was made that I love, but Henry has now commandeered it. I hope he lets me wear it from time to time as I think Elizabeth hats could also be worn year around. We of course love to buy local and the whole family is delighted with our Fair Isle Christmas Hats.
Look at these two goofballs... Same smile! Same expressions! they crack me up!
Thank you Fair Isle Crafts Co-op for making our Christmas!
I think every Birdwatchers must see interesting mystery birds that stick in the back of their minds as being different? This happens to me all of the time… especially with Warblers & Pipits. I’m always wishing for better, longer, closer views and sharp clear photos but everyone knows I’m a dreamer. Birdwatching is cruel! It has this way of making common birds look rare and rare birds common. Common wisdom says don't even talk about this stuff unless you're sure but that makes it hard to have an open dialogue and I wonder what others like you might think?
Snow Buntings – March 3rd 2008
I had never seen a Snow Bunting so white before. So much more beautiful and different than the others. I went back to my house to get my camera and tried to get a photo. It was in a flock of about 30 quite flighty birds. I chased the Snow Buntings around the fields of Leogh Croft and final managed this one photo of the bird in question by the stone dike near the road before the whole flock took off to somewhere below Malcolm’s Head. I felt that somehow that this bird was special but didn’t continue to chase it because it was just a Snow Bunting after all, not like it could be anything else? The photo was bad but I had kept it and for some reason and moved it to a select bird photo file on my computer I call “Birds Birds Birds”
full size - original photo
Over a year and a half later while buying the new 2nd addition Collin’s Bird Guide… Amazon.com suggested that I also buy David Sibley’s North American Bird Guide and The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. The Big Year was really fun to read and I can’t wait to see the movie coming out next year with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as obsessed birdwatchers. But Sibley’s book is very useful for Redpoles and other rare North American visitors to Fair Isle. So this autumn when the Snow Buntings came back I had a look to what Sibley had to say on the subject… and what’s this McKay’s Bunting? Yes in the book next to Snow Bunting is a very similar but even whiter Bunting? Immediately I wanted to check my old photo! But… the power was off, as it was past 11:30pm and I was reading by battery and candle light. The next evening when I finally had time to check my old photo I was surprised how much it looked like a 1st winter Female mainly due to the white back and all the other matching features. Even the plumage looks right for the time of year? But that must just be a high light I thought? but it’s not on the other birds in the photo? I've considered (lucistic)? But I continue to dwell on the mere dream that it might have been... While searching online I found this great McKay’s Bunting info: http://www.aba.org/birding/v37n6p618.pdf
I’m not trying to string anything here I have just found the whole process interesting and educational not to mention a bit exciting at times and thought I would share it. I now know that a bird like a Mckay’s Bunting in Britain would be close to impossible to identify, even by experts in the hand. It would also be impossibly lost... Seeing how anything is possible and this is Fair Isle where things like this do happen? I will be forever checking every whiter than normal Snow Bunting and I hope you join me.
Now another whiter than normal bird ?
I saw this bird June 2nd 2009 with a few Collared Doves in my garden. When I informed the local experts that it might be a Barbary Dove/African Collared Dove? or a Ringed Necked Turtle Dove as they say in the USA? I was then told “I’m not saying it isn’t. But so what if it is? It’s most likely an escape.”
Well… Birds have wings and I love that about them. So I guess I’ll always wonder where these birds really came from? and I’ll never know.
These photos are just record shots... but birding on Fair Isle is often all about the records!
I found these 2 Goldfinch the other day and thought at first they would be the latest year sighting ever. I checked the facts in the Birds of Fair Isle book and it's update and found only one other December sighting of only one bird. As my luck would have it also was on the 7th. Darn! I did have 2 birds though as a small consolation. I know not everyone lives in a place with it's birdwatching so well documented, this has it's advantages and disadvantages but if you can find any sort of bird record here you are well chuffed. When I got home I cleaned and filled my niger seed feeders in hopes they would find them in my garden and stay till tomorrow? Nothing. Nowhere on the 8th, and I looked everywhere I knew of thistles.
When I moved here from the States and got my Collins guide that first Christmas 2006 I saw the image of the European Goldfinch and remember saying "I can't wait to see one of these!" (I also said this of Hoopie, Bluethroat, etc. as Henry and I leafed though the pages) and wait I did... I had lived on Fair Isle for more than two years before ever seeing a Goldfinch... that is to say they are not that common here. Seen mostly in Spring & Autumn, in small numbers like 1 or 2 for the same amount of days. This year I had 5 in my garden at the same time. That is also a good record thanks to the power of niger seed.
2 Goldfinch 2 Starlings - Gaila - Dec. 9, 2010
Today I filled my birdfeeder again but nothing but nothing... House Sparrows and few desperate Starling on the niger seeds? I know some people would gladly trade a Goldfinch from their garden for the Snipe and Turnstone in mine today... While checking my emails from my computer set up at the table by the window I glanced two birds dart up and back down on the other side of my stone wall at the end of the garden. I didn't get a good look? It could of been anything? Twite? Redpole? The number was right and I had already checked those thistles just over the dike this morning and most of the Autumn for rarities. Today I would rather see a Goldfinch instead of another Arctic Redpole. I quickly get my hat, coat, bins, camera, boots, etc. in the sleeting rain at the end of the my Garden I found my record as I peered over the wall of Pig Street into Gaila near the Walli Burn. Those of you that know Fair Isle will know exactly where this is by looking at the old rusted farm equipment. The light was poor at the time and I had to brighten this photo. Later the sun broke though and I was getting ready to get a better shot as I noticed a Peregrine charge in! It sat on my wall for a bit then did a fly by flushing the South Harbor Beach. The Goldfinch were gone... its okay I saw the 2 of them again later by the South Lighthouse. I'm hopeful they find my niger seed eventually and stay to brighten up my Fair Isle Winter?
While taking a beautiful but brisk sunrise walk I took these photos. About 9am. a still lit lighthouse in the snow. You can see the Heron I unknowingly flushed from the tidepools flying away. Snow doesn't usually stay very long on Fair Isle because we are so close to the Sea, but with northern winds it has manage to hang around longer than normal. It was quite bitter cold out and had to laugh at the Starlings all snug in the wool stealing body heat from the back of this Ewe (female sheep) I bet she had a cold nose trying to find some grass to eat. I have seen many Starlings and occasionally other birds use Sheep as vantage points to look for food but never this? Trying to get a bit closer I was totally surprised by the bird's voice and its fanned tail as it took flight... Hey one of those Starlings is a Blackbird!
The Sheep Snugglers
They were really quite snug in the wool but just lifted their heads up as I was getting closer to take this photo.
We moved to Fair Isle from Upstate New York arriving on Fair Isle Nov. 29th, 2006
Our House we left in Saratoga Spring, New York. Summer - Winter
This is the 1st email & photos I sent to my friends & family Dec. 9th 2006 just after the Internet was hooked up. Now starting our fifth year here it's interesting to see first impressions with my old new eyes.
Hallo from Fair IsleScotland ,
We made it! While packing up in Saratoga we thought we might never make it out. Many thanks to our family & friends for their help and continued support.
After two days of numerous air planes long layovers and delays, we made it to the Shetlands. The cross winds from the approaching storm were so heavy that I didn't realize that the beautifully lit up runway about 45 degrees to the side of my window partially obscured by the wing was where we planned to land. The plane was already pretty low as it descended in a big arc (what is known as severe crabbing) until touch down then gunning it down the runway trying not to be blown off course, really it was prefect and amazing I'm sure they have done it hundreds of times… but I haven’t! The storm came in right behind us, it was raining with stronger winds by the time we left the airport in are rental suv packed to the gills. Driving on the wrong side of the road Liz did a good job once I told her to just to pretend you are in the fast lane, something she is used to. Once we arrived in Lerwick we check into a B&B. We then went out to eat, the best Chinese food I had in years then of course we went to the opera.
Odysseus Unwound, a modern opera incorporating singers and Scottish knitters. One of the knitters, is from Fair Isle , the same knitter Liz heard over a year ago on National Public Radio, Anne Sinclair and the musical group Chroma, who we saw last March while in Fair Isle was also a part of the opera. It was very good, in a conceptual creative mix of talents way.
The next morning the ferry boat the Good Shepherd was cancelled, so we spent the day shopping buying things (Phones, dishes, glasses, silverware, cappuccino maker etc.) Some we bought new and some we bought in second hand shops. While in one of the so called scrap shops buying a wardrobe, wicker, bookshelf, hairdryer, knifes etc. the sales man says "I heard of you. Your the American’s moving to Fair Isle ". I think this is something we are going to have to get used to... it was first spoken by a man waiting in the Albany airport, who heard us on wamc radio. Then again by the mother of the child Henry was playing with in Aberdeen airport. She works for a BBC outdoors radio program and wants to interview us. Then again from the car rental person in Shetland.
Anyways… that night we ate Indian & Nepalese food with the reporters and cameramen from the BBC TV News & Channel FIVE News, Sky TV people also waiting to get to Fair Isle to Interviews us. It was fun and the food was great. Back at the B&B the wind and rain was howling. Didn't look like we had much chance of flying into the island either. Seeing how the next available plane was full of journalist going over to film our arrival. They were planning to charter a special flight for us. Well it didn’t look like we were going anywhere anyways as the hail was coming down fiercely as we packed the car even fuller Henry was now sitting in my lap. We planned to drop of baggage at the Good Shepherd Ferry Boat and then do some more shopping for stuff.
Just as we are about to leave the B&B phone rings... come to the airport now! The BBC team got called away on another story and there was now room for us to go! now! a weather "wind"ow has opened straight into the a strong southern wind.
We flew for 25 minutes then buzzing around the south end of the isle to give the cameras a treat. We were exited to see the Auld Haa ,Sheep Rock and the South Lighthouse but it’s where the cliffs meet the North Sea that the true awe is found. Touching down was a breeze, soon familiar faces from what seemed long ago rushed up to the plane to greet us and to help with half our luggage the other half to heavy to come is in the still waiting room it should come on future flights? All the while the FIVE NEWS team was taking footage and Dave Wheeler the local photographer Weatherman & web master was taking still photos. The warm welcome was great on the runway. Shonagh a woman Liz bonded with last March announced she pregnant, and she been waiting to tell Liz in person for months. Great to see Stewart Wilson, sort of the Good Will ambassador plus minister for the Church of Scotland, an older but sparkly gent. He gave Henry, me and a few bags a ride down to the Haa. Liz rode with Shonagh discussing the baby and our trip. There it is the Auld Haa House, what a view! It’s about 2:30 pm the sun is sort of low breaking though clouds as the massive waves crash and burst on the rocks in the SouthHarbor called the Skerries. I think they got that name because it would be “scary” to steer a boat though them. Dropping off our things then rushing up to the store for food & supplies. The little store is surprising in that it is very eclectic, with lots of Asian and Indian foods, spices, chocolates and all the staples one can think of. Really it’s quite efficient and saves a lot of time with no lines not to mention it sells beer wine and liquor also doubles as the post office.
New Home -Auld Haa House View from the South Harbor
Henry's 1st day at Fair Isle Primary School
Anyways, we get back to the Haa start to unpack, Liz tells me we have been invited to dinner, after she is going to the choir practice. Henry started school the next morning and loves it. He was every exited to see the baby seals on the beach, I even petted one but it didn’t like it much bellowing like old dog it tried to bite me! We are settling in quite well. It’s been a week now, we are on line. We have a phone.
Good Shepherd unloading our new household appliances
about 4 pm and quite dark out
The boat came yesterday finally and we now have a stove, fridge, chest freezer & a heater. The wind died to a mild breeze two days ago. Now it’s sunny and clear at night with a full moon. I’m finding it hard to work because all I want to do is stare out the window or go for walk along the beach. Today we saw our first Fair Isle rainbow. Now that I find myself writing about rainbows I know I got to stop.
Their has been about a dozen Redpolls in and out of my garden for weeks but as hard as I try, I can't get close enough for a good clear close up photo. It's not like they are eating out of my hands. LOL! I have been trying to photo this one very red breasted Redpoll in particular... but as you can see I'm to far away and by the time I crop in on the photo its not as sharp as I wish.
This is the best and closest photo I've been able to capture of this bird.
I like this photo it is a nice Fair Isle photo with a pretty bird with the Methodist Chapel in the background. I was hoping to get a better portrait of the bird though... Little did I know that I wasn't the only one keying on the birds beautiful red breast. Today as the light was fading I found this!
Dead but not eaten. CATS! To put a human face on this is one of over 50,000,000 birds killed in Britain by cats this year. The USA is said to have over a billion birds killed by domestic cats every year. Feral cats who knows? Yes cats have wild and natural instincts but pets are a species introduced by man or woman to ecosystems... even if it's only your garden. This stuff really bothers me and this is not how I wanted to get my close up. I really want my blog to be a positive experience so I'm going end my post with a photo of a different Redpoll that is hopefully still alive. Cheers
The sticks outside my window covered in waxwings...
I had a pile of books that I was using a tripod.
In the end of September I was hosting a birding tour at our Auld Haa Guesthouse, one of the birdwatchers had a camera with a huge lens (cha ching) and was photographing the Blackcaps and a Garden Warbler eating apples on sticks that I wire together to make a small tree. I love feeding birds and have many bird feeders and this "tree" has some wire to hold an apple in the middle of it, it works great and the birds really seem to like it. That is because Fair Isle has basically no naturally occurring trees and not much fruit! Problem was when photographing it was hard to get a photo of a bird without a apple or a bit of wire in it?
Blackcap & Apple
I had an Idea... between lunch and dinner I had about an hour to fiddle around with some sticks (driftwood) I had collect from the seashore. I wire them together in a way that the apple would sit an inch or 2 below the top stick and the stick with the apple on it is at an angle inconvenient for perching and eating. Then you simply crop out the apple and the other sticks. I stuck it in the ground among the honeysuckle in my garden for a nice background and when the photographer/birdwatcher came back he nailed some awesome shots before dinner and more during the next few days before leaving Fair Isle.
So I had no guest for a few days after they left... so I tried my luck? With my rubbish cameras? no can do! I just can't get close enough. So I move the sticks in front of my window and tried from there. And as luck would have it a Barred Warbler showed up soon after. OMG only 2 foot away! I set my camera on flower mode and clicked away. Sometimes I even got lucky.
eating and showing it's undertail-coverts
when the bird sits up snap and shoot!
and you can get photo like these.
I had 3 different Barred Warblers in the month of Oct. maybe I'll do a post at some point just on Barred Warblers of Oct. 2010... I've go tons of photos to sort through... Some visiting birdwatchers even had "Lifers" or life ticks on their bird lists while looking at the Barred Warbler on my stick. It's a bit geekish but this post is becoming a form of a stick list now that I think of it. Here are some of the other bird I have been able to photograph in this way.
Twisted wire sticks up through the core with side wires poked though the skin for stability. I like using green apples as they do not reflect a unnatural red huge on the birds belly.
look closely at the eye... no it's not a pale eye of an American Rusty Blackbird...
it's the refection of the white exterior of my house and the dark rectangle window.
You can even see a white dot, the reflected light from the lens of my camera.
Fair Isle Rarity? no just a cool looking Starling.
Added bonus... the birds eat the flies that also are attracted to apples.
Birds just like to perch and wait for bugs, like this Whinchat.
I'm so much cuter with that apple cut out of frame.
Why don't I get to be on Christmas Cards?
This Brambling doesn't eat apples but rested for a moment on the way to my window box.
I didn't crop this photo... yet
Twite - ringed
change the apple to a small cup of seeds and you get different species, like this Siskin.
Now I have shown you how to get better photos of some birds in your garden even without a big lens.
I have only been doing this since Oct. 1st and I'm really enjoying the results.
Here is an important tip put apples in more than one spot and some further away.
Once they start eating... at some point the birds will want more and then they are willing to come closer in.
This is my photographic secret, I hope you try it, have fun and success. Cheers Tommy
Waxwing Invasion on the stick outside my widow (22 sec.)
sometimes it works to good!
This was feeding in my window box today while writing and posting this entry
Hawfinch or as I like to call them Auld Haafinch...
it was even on my stick a few times but I failed to get a photo.
New birds added below
Brambling - April 22nd 2011
Redpoll - April 25th 2011
Out side looking in... Redpoll & Twite - April 25th 2011
Siskin - Male - April 15th 2011
Waxwing at night Jan. 15th 2011
Wood Warbler - August 2011
The Fair Isle Wren - Britain's rarest ingenious subspecies