30 August 2016

Ringing on Fair Isle

Ciaran Hatsell, Senior Assistant Warden for Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO) writes:

Fair Isle has been a hallowed ground for ornithological studies for over 60 years. It's unique location and isolation coupled with its small size make it a nigh on perfect place to study both bird migration and seabird populations. With the old pioneers such as ‘Fieldy’ Stout paving the way for the modern day observatory staff (who rely more on optical equipment than firearms!), the art of daily observations and recording still holds a very relevant place in the ornithological world.

Fair Isle is famous for attracting rare and scarce migrants from all over the world and the daily ringing activities often provide opportunities to study some unusual species. With over 378,000 birds ringed at FIBO, there have been some remarkable movements logged, with ringed birds recovered as far away as Brazil, Canada, Russia and South Africa amongst others.

It would be easy to assume that the majority of the ‘vagrants’ that reach the isle will never make it back and that they have simply made a grave error on their migration route. However, down the years recoveries have shown that birds can re-orientate and get back on track. A Rustic Bunting ringed on 12th June 1963 on Fair Isle was shot in Greece on 15 October of the same year, demonstrating the ability of these birds breeding hundreds of miles from here to find their way again (albeit to meet an unfortunate end!)

American Wigeon photo taken by Edmund Fellowes

Another phenomenal tale was of a young male American Wigeon, ringed as a duckling in New Brunswick, Canada on 13 August 1986 and found on Fair Isle 21 September of the same year! In a recurring theme, the bird was then shot two months later in Ireland, presumably as it attempted to re-orientate. 

Fair Isle has been fortunate enough to host many first records for Britain over the years and birding here really can produce anything at any time: from a Rufous-tailed Robin (the first British record) being found on a family stroll, to a Magnolia Warbler found on the cavernous expanses of the west cliffs of the island on a Sunday afternoon off. It really is a magical place to observe migration. For those islanders and Bird Obs staff that value their ‘Fair Isle lists’, it can be the most unusual bird that gets people running. Several observers famously abandoned a search for a Siberian Rubythroat to go and see a Blue Tit that had turned up!

A super rare Blue Tit photo taken by Dawn Balmer

The other major aspect of work at FIBO is the monitoring of seabirds. The fortunes of Fair Isle’s seabirds play out a rather sinister tale and in recent years, the island have been a crucial biological indicator site of our changing climate. Several species have declined in number and the demise of the Kittiwake is perhaps the most evocative story. They have gone from 19,340 breeding pairs in 1988 down to just 880 breeding pairs in 2015.  The islanders who have been here since then are saddened by the lack of noise and atmosphere the Kittiwake once created, with the voice of the Kittiwake fast disappearing from our seabird choir.

Kittiwake photo taken by John Harding

There has been a great amount of work recently done on designating the waters around Fair Isle as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), which could potentially go some way to safeguarding the future of Fair Isle's seabird and marine life.

As part of the seabird monitoring work here we also get a chance to ring a good number of seabirds. One of the aspects visitors to Fair Isle often enjoy the most is the Storm Petrel ringing sessions. The opportunity for guests to get involved with releasing the birds is something people rarely forget and makes a trip to Fair Isle even more memorable. It never ceases to amaze how these dainty, Starling sized birds spend years out on the open oceans, covering great distances in the search of food and potential breeding colonies. The BTO website lists the oldest Storm Petrel at 37 years, 11 days old, remarkable for such a diminutive seabird! Fair Isle a great site for catching, with 2,453 birds ringed in 2014 alone. We have caught birds from the Faroes, Norway, Portugal as well as many hundreds from other sites in Britain.

The standardised daily recording and ringing of migrants provides a fantastic and unique data set. The data is currently being analysed with some fascinating results involving the arrival and departure dates for migrants. There is a vast wealth of data and it may take many years to analyse it all.

Over anything else, it is a great honour and privilege to get to work in such an incredible place, with the changing of the seasons bringing something new at every turn. From migrants, to seabirds to taking in the awe inspiring scenery, the work here at the Bird Obs is both scientifically relevant and hugely enjoyable.

Eds - It is great to see a report of the first ringed Hen Harrier being recorded moving to/from Fair Isle! Ringed as a chick on Orkney on 7 July. See more on their Twitter page.

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