Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hallo from Fair Isle, We arrived on Fair Isle Nov. 29th, 2006

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 Isle Scotland ,

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 South Harbor 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.

All is well, sorry for the long ramblings. Tommy

Young Grey Seal - Udi Geo - South Harbor
So cute... but he tried to bite me!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Redpoll - Deadpoll


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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sweet Siskins Love Birds

Male & Female - Siskin eating niger seed under my feeder.

This morning 12 Siskin showed up on my bird feeders. Seemly quite approachable as I crawled on my belly to get within a few feet of them to take this photo. They make a cute couple don't they?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Birds on a Stick

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.

Barred Warbler

eating and showing it's undertail-coverts
when the bird sits up snap and shoot!
and you can get photo like these.
Barred Warbler
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!

Added Bonus
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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Fair Isle Adventure - Video

Fair Isle

Some of the people looking at my Blog are interests in how and why we 3 Americans live on Fair Isle? and that's just the subject of Liz's (my wife & Henry's mother) Documentary (Still in Development) My Fair Isle Adventure here is a Taste.  
Link to: My Fair Isle Aventure - 1 min. video taster by Liz Musser

My Fair Isle Adventure from Liz Musser on Myspace.

Henry, Liz & Tommy

First Person Article for: THE SUNDAY TIMES  by Liz Musser
January 2007 only 2 months after moving to Fair Isle.

For a second, the roar of wind and sea sounds strangely like the traffic of Saratoga Springs, but that’s a different time zone.  No cars on this road. No streetlamps, just the moon reflecting off the wet pavement that winds its way through the silhouetted hills and houses of Fair Isle.  The light that traces the landscape is the beacon from a lighthouse not a search light from a police helicopter.  I’m not afraid to walk alone at night.  There are no wolves here, only sheep finding refuge from the wind behind a stone fence.

I pass Skerryholm, Utra, Leogh and Nether Taft before I reach Midway, Old Jimmy’s house.  The folk that live in a house take on its name.  So even though we are the newest residents, Tommy, Henry and I are referred to as Haa or Auld Haa, the island’s oldest home. 

The Auld Haa House circa 1700

Doors aren’t locked and no one knocks.  I enter leading with my voice, “Hello Jimmy,” feet follow.  I find “Old Jimmy” Stout sitting in the kitchen, in a living room chair, next to a big old stove that warms him, the room and a tea kettle.  The clock ticks loudly giving the silence a rhythm; the measuring of minutes is less important.  Jimmy is 95-years-old, and the time he keeps is from years passed.  “Where’s the boy,” he asks.  I tell him home with Tommy.  I ask him about his boyhood and about growing up on Fair Isle.  He tells me his mother died when he was very young.  His memory is not of her, but of not having her.  “Oh dear, oh dear,” he struggles.  I help him move to the table for his tatties and mince—potatoes and hamburger.  Neither of us says another word.  He eats.  The clock ticks.

At this time 2 months ago I would have been stuck in traffic inching my way home, my mind a thousand miles away.  Now here I am, thinking about traffic and a story I heard on my car radio.  Actually, it was more like the beginning of a story, the main characters and their adventure not yet revealed.  The National Trust for Scotland was looking for tenants for a 300-year-old house on a remote Scottish Island. 

The best stories are always the ones you can imagine yourself in—facing the conflict that is inevitable, having the courage to take the journey.  For years I pieced other people’s lives together into neat 2 to 10 minute packages with a beginning, middle and end, often neglecting pieces of my own.  As a television news photographer and video producer, I spent long hours editing, weekends on shoots, and too many times kissed my husband and son good night over the phone from a hotel room. 
Before I say good night to Jimmy, he places his hands on my cheeks and says, “thank you for being so good to me, Lass.”

In my old job I would have said, “Thank you for time.”  But this is not the kind of job where I can just enter and exit a person’s life; I am a part of it--an intricate pattern of lives linked… an island community.  There’s no one else on the island available to do social care.  Instead I say, “I’ll see you in the morning, Jimmy.” 

My greatest fear moving to Fair Isle was not lack of 24-hour--shopping, banking and electricity. I was afraid we might not be accepted into the tight-knit community.  I don’t care how beautiful the scenery or cheap the rent, to be isolated on a remote island would be my idea of hell.  Instead, we got a warm welcome.  Folks knew our appliances were delayed on the ferry because of weather.  And our shipment from America had not arrived, still hasn’t.  We arrived with a few suitcases filled with clothes, some silverware, legos, an air mattress, sheets and a blanket.  My purse carried our passports and a frying pan.

Auld Haa House - South Harbor - Fair Isle

The first night we walked into the Auld Haa the radiators was turned on to fight off the late November chill.  Folks rounded up a table and chairs, a stove, a couch.  They offered beds and linens, invited us to dinner, brought over meat from their freezers potatoes from their garden. We were immediately dependent on people.  And that can be an uncomfortable position to be in.  It’s so much easier when kindness is a commodity that can be paid for with cash. 

Like when the left wheels of my car went off the narrow road into the rain saturated mud and grass ditch.  Back in the states, I would have called a tow truck, paid a few hundred bucks, and would never have to see the driver again.  Instead, I sat in my car not able to do anything about it.  To my horror, Young Jimmy, still dressed in his Sunday clothes, happened upon my unfortunate situation. I was grateful, of course, but it was the second time he muddied himself pulling me out.  He was a little curt, but “Dat is it.”

There’s a story of his father Old Jimmy during WWII, when German submarines could be spotted off the coast and a Germany weather reconnaissance plane was a regular sight in the skies.  One day that Heinkel 111 crashed.  Jimmy raced to the site.  Three of the crew died.  He rescued a badly injured man and a young pilot.  It was the pilot’s 21st birthday. Jimmy shared a bottle of whiskey and took the men to the nurse.  The German pilot returned to the island two more times during his lifetime.  He gave the Fair Isle museum photos taken from his reconnaissance missions and his diary. 

I understand the wreckage still exists. Tomorrow after Henry and I visit Old Jimmy; maybe we’ll look for that plane. Weather permitting. 

Weather rules.  And the illusion that you are in complete control of your life very quickly disappears.  For us it happened a day after we left New York.  The last leg of our voyage was Lerwick, Shetland to Fair Isle via the Good Shepard Ferry, but the weather wouldn’t allow it.  As it turned out, the Ferry didn’t sail for 10 more days.  Fortunately, you have another option, Direct Flight.  The next morning we called, “Doesn’t look good.  Doesn’t look good for tomorrow either, but call back in an hour.”  So we didn’t bother packing, 15 minutes later we got a call, “We have a small window. Can you be here in a half hour?”

As they say in Fair Isle, “That’s just the way it is.”  The ferry and plane go or don’t go depending on the weather, so you may or may not get on and off the island when it’s convenient for you.  During the winter the ferry is scheduled to go to Sumburgh, Shetland and back once a week, the plane 3 days a week 2 times each day.  Besides passengers, the plane carries our mail and some food. 

Every time the Good Shepard returns it’s a community event.  A line of headlights makes its way to the North Harbor.  Crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs, Indian spices and maples syrup, on-line and mail order items—all hoisted onto the pier where a good showing of islanders form a chain to unload.  It’s the kind of community spirit I’ve only seen during times of disaster—usually dieing out within a couple of weeks.  But sometimes it sticks and becomes part of the community.

There was a time when the island was divided:  east verse west, Methodist verse Church of Scotland.  But World War I changed that.  Young men left Fair Isle to fight; those who returned did not want to fight any more. And so the island agreed to worship, sing and pray together--a tradition that continues today.  One Sunday service is held in the Kirk, Church of Scotland; the following Sunday service is held in the Methodist Chapel.

We haven’t been church-goers, but we went on Christmas, so did most of the island-- believers and non-believer,  very elderly, even the teenager who attend school off island were there.  The day after Christmas, everyone on the island attended the “Christmas Tree.”  Years ago a teacher, not originally from the island, had a Christmas tree shipped in because there are no trees.  Every family was invited to celebrate under it.
Now anyone can order a tree through the store.  But the Christmas Tree Party carried on. 
It’s geared toward the bairns, children:  Santa revisits and there are lots of games. We closed the evening in a circle all holding hands and sang Auld Ang Syne.

On New Year’s Eve--guising.  I’d never heard of it.  Henry and the other bairns dressed up and did a spoof of The Pirates of the Caribbean.  We drove them around to perform in houses around the island.  They were well paid with “sweeties.”  That night, Tommy disguised as a crofter, made his way around the island in the back of a van with 5 other masked thespians.  No house with an occupant was missed.  Henry and I enjoyed 4 different performances- mocking George Bush, Tony Blair, and several islanders.

The holiday season ended with one last party.  The men and boys made all the food, served it and did the dishes.   Three generations of Thompson’s played, and Tommy, Henry and I did our best to imitate the Shetland and Scottish dances.  It really was one of the Christmas’ I can remember since my childhood. 

We place Henry’s first tooth under his pillow.  He asks if the tooth fairy will find him in Fair Isle, and he wishes he could show his friends back in Saratoga Springs.  He’s weepy.  I remind him Santa found him.   

“Tomorrow we’ll visit Old Jimmy.  Then we’ll try to find a plane from WWII.  We can go down to the tide pools, catch sea creatures and count seals.”  He listens with his eyes close.  I kiss my peerie(small) boy good night.

Henry and the tail section of the German Heinkel 111 H-2 shot down and crash landed Jan. 17th, 1941.
Henry was born Jan. 17th, 2001 exactly 60 years to the day.

Liz's Fair Isle videos at her myspace page -

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Boys with Birds

A beautiful memory from Nov. 28th, 2007 

 Henry & Little Auk

This lovely darling was found stranded inland on Fair Isle. The wind had calmed and the grass a bit to long for this bird to regain flight. We took the Little Auk to the South Harbor and let it go. We watched it paddle out to sea and wished it on its way. With all the folk looking at my son with Waxwings I was thinking maybe you would also like this photo. "one of my favorites" We had never seen a Little Auk before or since. For my North America friends and family they are called Dovekie. It was so cute & gentle... not like holding a Puffin! This photo always reminds me of one of my favorite Pablo Picasso paintings that I have just recently seen for the first time? or maybe I have seen it before on loan in a Picasso Show in NYC? What ever... I love it and it inspires me. Take a look at the link below.

National Gallery in London.  Child with Dove  Painting by Pablo Picasso 

Monday, November 08, 2010

Hey Dad... this is like fishing for birds. Oct. 28th, 2010

                                                             I think this is priceless!
This video is the first bird to come to us away from the door of the house.
Video much clearer once you start play

Cheeky & Cheeky

As you can imagine we all are very sad that Liz (my wife & Henry's mother) was not here the day of the hand feeding Waxwings. Especially since she is a professional Videographer with an HD video camera! Yes, Henry and I took some good photos considering I have 2 rubbish cameras! one is a old Fuji finepix given to me from a sympathetic guest that stayed at our Auld Haa Guesthouse after upgrading to a fancy Nikon! Believe me I'm thankful... but, its held together with a Rubberband! and you wouldn't want to take it out in the rain. The other camera is a little pocket Kodak point and shoot with a scratch on the lens, it has a nasty habit of over heating batteries to the point of melt down uselessness. Don't point it towards the light or sunset because the photo will be useless! making those photos all the more incredible... my % of usable photos much lower than most people. Yes clear HD video would of been nice and she did get some! but the day after and it wasn't same... the weather changed windy and grey, the Waxwings came one at a time and were not quite so hungry as I had feed them well before she return home. As my mother always says, You get what you get and you don't get upset.


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Waxwings - Oct. 25th 2010 a day we'll always remember.

 Waxwing looking rather heroic.

Waxwing invasion at the Auld Haa House, Fair Isle, Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK.
Bohemian Waxwings feeding just out side my window! What could be better than that?

Waxwings out my window on a rainy day like the day before...

Waxwings out my window on the stick I have to photograph and feed birds on this sunny day.

A flock of 12 to 16 Waxwings had been in my garden for a few days eating old apples, plums & cranberries I had stuck about on sticks and branches. The birds had gotten used to me taking photos of them from a few feet away from the other side of my windows where I had placed apples. Liz my wife was away in Shetland. Henry was home from school and I was enjoying the whole morning photographing the feeding birds. If only I could get this close with no window in the way? So I found the longest stick I could find... hello! this is Fair Isle? No trees! I got this one from a stock pile I have been collecting from sea shore, but it seemed a little short. I stuck 2 halves of an apple on the branch and had Henry stick it out the front door. The first few birds landed on the stick for the briefest of moments, but as soon as one started eating the others happily joined in.

The first Waxwing on the stick from the inside the front door looking out.

We could now move slowly out of the doorway and into the center of the garden. It was amazing...
The Waxwings had no fear of us and didn't mine us taking photos as long as we had apples.
Who's looking at who?

 to see birds like this...

The Waxwings eat till the apples fell off the stick.
Stick in one hand, my camera in other.

Henry & the Bohemians

I had just put new apple on the stick for Henry to continue feeding. Then I picked up off the ground what was mostly just the skin of an fallen apple, they must of been drunk from the fermented apple juice or something because next thing I knew they were perching on my finger tips eating away. You can see the apple juice had stuck the feathers together on the birds neck as they would put their whole head in the apple skin to get every bit.

The Bird at Hand...

A bird in the hand is worth a thousand words.

Not to be out done, Henry gives it a try... but with 2 new apples halves?

Ouch!!! now what is he complaining about?

These are wild birds don't forget and some of the birds must of thought Henry's little finger tips were berries and gave him little nips! Henry was sort of crying with laughter in total awe; the birds didn't even fly away. They just turned their head and looked. I love the looks on the bird faces like they are wondering what's up with this kid?

Waxwing Juggling

Look at how he is now hiding his finger under his thumb so it doesn't get bitten again. Waxwings were in our garden for over a week, but they only came to our hands this one day. A total of 8 or 9 was the most Henry ever had at one time, and 39 was the peak garden count. Waxwings have been recorded all over Britain earlier and in greater numbers this Autumn. If you have any old fruit please put it out for the birds. The truth is on Fair Isle there is not much food left for migrating birds this time of year, and this is proof of that sometimes you'll do anything for a free meal.

It's not sunny everyday on Fair Isle...

Note the new ankle bracelet complements of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. I took this photo through my window... I felt sorry for the birds being out there in that storm. If you look close, you can see the water droplets splashing of the birds back. I'm trying not to project human emotions on the facial expression of this bird, but what a look!

Henry & I took turns taking photos of each other... he's much cuter

That is a real Fair Isle knit hat! made on Fair Isle!

This will always be a sunny memory for us!

We are so glad that so many other people are enjoying & sharing these photos that I added more photos and info to the original post. If you click on the photos they get bigger. Cheers! Tommy & Henry

Comment box is full! for more Waxwing photos & more comment space see the next post...