August 2002 (and January 2006)

The Twitchers and Tweeters of Fair Isle

In 2002, I took a long trip through the UK, and stayed a week in Shetland. I've posted some folklore I collected there in an essay on the haunted Windhouse. At the end of that Shetland week, I took the ferry to Fair Isle from the southern tip of Shetland. Fair Isle is a small dot in the North Sea between the Orkney Islands and Shetland, all of which are north of Scotland. This is an edited version of the travel story I wrote about the Fair Isle visit in August 2002.

Getting There

In the summer, a boat goes to and from Shetland three times a week, manned by sailors who live on the island and have been doing this trip for years and possibly generations. The boat (Good Shepherd IV--I can guess what happened to the other 3) carries everything they need: wood planks and other construction pieces, food for the shop and bird observatory, mail, garbage from the island for disposal, livestock, and I think even drinking water. When I went across, they let caged pigeons out halfway there for some kind of bird race. I guess you do what you have to do to spice up the routine. fair isle pic by L ChernyThe Good Shepherd IV is blue.

The boat trip takes 2 1/2 hours and is famous as a rough ride. I called the morning before to ask if they took credit cards because I misremembered 38 pounds roundtrip and there's only one town in Shetland with bank machines which was 30 minutes from my cottage. The captain's wife said drily, "It's only 2 pounds 30, cash will do nicely." It's incredibly cheap, because it's subsidized by the local government. fair isle pic by L ChernyArriving at Fair Isle

Even in good weather, this boat pitches around quite a lot. Most people on my trips stayed up on deck to combat seasickness and watch for birds, but this meant really hanging on hard through 45 degree angle deck lifts. Even people who aren't prone to seasickness felt queasy, including me. (I was foolish enough to try to read belowdecks for a while, after I got cold up above. I wouldn't do it again.) A woman coming back with me two days later said almost everyone on her first crossing was sick over the rail. Lovely.

If this is discouraging, one can fly for about 70 pounds, but the flights are much less likely to go as scheduled, because of fog. The statistic for on-time flights is very, very low.

Island Life

The island itself is just three miles long and a mile and a half wide. There are no cash machines, no pubs or restaurants, no hotels, few cars, and only a couple roads connecting the handful of houses and churches. There's a North lighthouse and a South lighthouse, a tiny local history museum, and a shop with post office. For some reason lots of rare Northern birds stop over on this tiny rock for a breather while flying around the North Atlantic. Perhaps they like the locals and the quiet scenery.

About 70 people live on the island currently, mostly in the houses at the south end. Some percentage of the families are or were fishermen, but I think life is more diverse now and includes some farming. A few do local crafts, like shipbuilding, stained-glass, and the famous Fair Isle knitting. Fair Isle sweaters are what the island is internationally famous for, not the birds and bad weather. When Shetland knitters ripped off the patterns in the '20s, the Fair Isle women made their own brand: Fair Isle by Fair Isle.fair isle pic by L ChernyLocal knitting samplers

Everyone on the island knows everyone and knows everyone's news. While I was there, I learned about people who had moved off recently, people who were ill, and even caught the volunteer work group's gossip. (They were staying at the other end of the island in a primitive hostel, helping to clearing farmland.) The parties at the volunteer base camp are major events that everyone attends; I went along hoping for local folk music, and met volunteers, the shipbuilders' kid, and the cousin of one of the Good Shepherd boat crew.

The locals are in general very friendly to the tourist and birdwatchers, with an exception I'll describe later. I find it a little surprising how friendly they are, given the bird watchers trampling over their land day and night. Perhaps they are just happy for new social contact. During World War II, a German plane crashed and the locals took the pilot "into custody." When he turned 21, they took him to Shetland and bought him his first legal drink. He comes back to visit occasionally. (The wreckage of his plane is still exactly where it was. I saw it myself! I think it's been left as a deliberate memorial to him and their friendliness.) fair isle pic by L ChernyHouses on the Isle

The Bird Observatory

If you want to visit Fair Isle, you can stay at the bird observatory, a strange microculture of its own in the tiny island community. The bird observatory offers plain but comfortable rooms and meals for guests, regardless of birding interests. The observatory is nearer the north cliff end by the boat harbor and has a staff of about 6-8 depending on season, all young. Hollie, who coordinates guests, gives a chatty introductory talk to you over lunch when you arrive off the boat and introduces her three kids, pointing out that the little girl looks like Dad, the observatory warden, and the middle boy looks like a little blonde girl.

The facilities are basic, a cross between a youth hostel and a plain B&B. The bathrooms and showers are all shared. Meals are included in the cost and are fixed menus at fixed times, including cookies and hot chocolate at 9.30 at night. Everyone eats together-- eats a lot, for some reason, we all felt like pigs-- and pretty soon everyone does everything else together too. If I hadn't left after two days, I'd have ended up sleeping with a Scottish professor old enough to be my father. fair isle pic by L ChernyLooking south.

If Fair Isle is a crossroads for strange birds, the same could be said about the tourists who come to visit them. Almost all the fellow guests were British, plus one Italian student working on getting her bird ringing license. This is the qualification that allows you to put a tiny metal numbered ring on a bird's leg, along with recording their measurements.

Among the less birdy folks, there was a group of women all named "Ann" from Yorkshire who come every year (they're wool "spinners"). Juliet was just out of school and working on various conservation projects; she had lived in France for a few years and we bonded over French bureaucracy. To her, my plan at the time of volunteering for six months as a gardener at a Welsh castle didn't sound so crazy. One of the women working in the kitchen was also taking some time out from the career world, working a few months here, a few months there. She was heading to New Zealand next. A lecturer in architecture from St. Andrews had first visited the island 35 years ago; he said even then they played the annual football match of locals versus the observatory folks. (At the time he was drafted to play with the locals to make the numbers even.) fair isle pic by L ChernyPretty church roof. A Cambridgeshire couple had a daughter who lived in France, did costuming for films, and was married to the sound engineer who worked on Wim Wenders' films.

As you can see, you don't have to be a bird fanatic to visit and stay there -- I'm not one, and a handful of other people there (quietly) admitted the same. Nevertheless there was a large contingent of serious bird watchers, or "twitchers." Twitchers keep track of all the birds they've ever seen in personal notebooks. Fair Isle famously offers rare additions to their list, including migrants from Siberia and Eastern Europe. A personal list of 200-some was considered amateurish. When someone announced they'd seen a citrine wagtail, everyone else rushed to the spot right after the next meal. There was even a whiteboard in the dining room with regular updates to make sure no one missed the news. For a day or so, "the ditch" was reported to be a real hot spot.fair isle pic by L ChernyBird folk with Scopes

The bird folks were all equipped with enormous binoculars and telescopes ("scopes") with tripods. My tiny opera glasses purchased for a Page&Plant reunion concert blushed beside these macho field lenses everyone else was toting. I was afraid to even get them out for use on the boat. I naively assumed the scopes were for photographing the birds, but not at all. They were just for looking!

Searching for Puffins (Danger alert!)

My magnification challenge is how I got wrapped up in the Siberian Bird Encounter. Like millions of tourists in the UK before, puffins are really the pinnacle of bird watching for me. You have to admit, they are a cute feathered critter.from pics from BBC's
Island Blogging photos

Last time I did a tour of Scotland (10 years or more ago), I did it at exactly the same time of year with the same lack of success, proving I haven't gotten smarter about scheduling my trips. In both cases, I arrived about two weeks after all the puffins left shore for sea, taking their fluffy babies with them. The day we arrived on Fair Isle, one of the observatory staff I'd met on the boat told me with a smile that he'd seen a few left on the cliffs on the northwest of the island. fair isle pic by L ChernyCliff views.

A day later, a young couple said they'd watched a few puffins fishing in the bay just to the north of the observatory. "You really do need to go with someone with a scope, otherwise there's not really any point though."

Violet, the Edinburgh girl I'd met on the boat, offered to go with me and bring her scope. I was grateful. At the north bayside we tolerated the midges (local biting flies) for about 10 minutes and then she said, "Why don't we just check out those cliffs on the northwest." She and her friend Simeon had been there a day or two ago as well.

She had only a vague idea where to head us, because he had been leading the way at the time and she had a poor grasp of the island geography. It was very hot. We plodded generally northwestward across miles and miles of dried up heather, pretty bad walking because you had to keep an eye where you stepped to avoid falling in holes. It was really quite hot. We had no water. Surely the island wasn't this big.

Eventually we saw some people on the horizon and decided they must know where they were going. Assuming they were bird watchers, it pretty much had to be the cliffs too. (The "ditch" was somewhere to the south.) We trudged until they got bigger, then close enough to say hello, and then we stopped when we realized we didn't know who they were (i.e., they were not bird people) and that they were climbing straight up some vertical hill. At this point, our conversation was just terse: "Jesus. This really sucks." "What do you think that tower is?" "I guess it's the communications mast, but that means we're only down here! Fuck! We should be up here!" (I had a crumpled paper map.) "I didn't think it was this far. This isn't a big island. I thought it was only a mile or two." "We should have gone swimming with the guys." "I need a razor before I'll consider that." "I had my legs waxed." [�.. ] "Fuck it's hot."

The whole time she was carrying this enormous telescope and tripod, and I didn't once offer to carry it. I just didn't think I could. Later, after we survived and made it back (we did!), I offered to buy her a drink to make up for the whole experience; but she went straight to bed before I could. I deserved to feel bad.fair isle pic by L ChernyEven more cliffs

We crept around the mountainside, thinking we had to hit water eventually, it's only a tiny damned island, MY GOD WE WERE GOING TO JUST DIE HERE IN THIS SUN--a pile of bleached tourist bones, I stopped and took a look around. Hey, there were wispy clouds coming in from the south. We cheered them on. I mean, screw this blinding blue afternoon that was making for pretty picture conditions but frying us alive.

The Fog Came for Us...

By the time we got around that mountain 10 minutes later, a dense fog swallowed everything. We couldn't see past 20 feet. It was better than a hot death march, but I got worried. Just how close to the edge of the cliffs were we? Without any long-range visibility, we'd never figure out if we were near the cliffhead we were looking for, which was called the Dronger or the Dongle or the Dingler.

Someone appeared out of the mist ahead of us. This was a tiny island (or so they keep saying), so you did run into people. It still felt MacBethian. But it was just a botanist staying at the observatory. In relief, we hollered, "Hiya, find anything interesting? Could you just tell us how far we are from the cliffs? And is it the Dongle?"

fair isle pic by L ChernyFlowers

He pointed to the just visible horizon, now only 10 feet away. "You're there, and yes it is!" After politely telling me that the island was interesting because one found seashore plants far inland because the violent surf and storms threw salt water quite far, he went away again, squinting down at the grass.

We wandered, too close to the edge for me, but the original point had after all been to try to find puffins who didn't have to worry about falling over cliffs in poor weather.

A few years ago a visiting twitcher kid did fall off the edge. He died. They've now got a scholarship fund set up to bring other young birdwatchers his age to the island, so as to encourage them to kill themselves too. A pair of nice lads were currently here on this scholarship, come up from the Lakes and Manchester. In this weather, they'd certainly fall off. We'd join them, even without the special funding.

fair isle pic by L ChernyMore cliff danger.

We couldn't see anything at all. We were quite tired. Guessing we were somewhere near the point furthest from the observatory, we worried whether we'd make it back for dinner. Meals were just not to be missed, what with all the baking the cooks did. Even I had forgotten why we were out here, aside from feeling a little embarrassed.

The Bird Log and the Boys

Being lost in the fog encouraged intimacy. Juliet confessed that the boys at the observatory made her nervous. She didn't feel like a serious bird person, even with her bigger-than-yours field glasses and scope. They were so competitive about it. Every night was a bird roll call, the "log," in which the twitchers told the warden how many they had seen of what kind. The men answered confidently, "101 fulmars," "3 crossbills," etc. No one ever questioned whether they knew what they were talking about. fair isle pic by L ChernyBoat in North Harbor. When one of the scholarship kids said he saw a corncrake, a bird which in the British press is always preceded by the word "elusive" or "vanishing," they literally sent out a posse. Afterwards I saw 4 guys pile out of the observatory van and go sweeping through someone's private field making clucking noises. Violet's friend Simeon was among them, smoking a fag. They looked more like a gang than nature lovers.

So, yes, there is a in fact a little bit of tension from the locals about the obsessiveness of some bird hunters. One old fellow refuses to allow them on his land. He's 94 and owns a shotgun. The fence around his property enforces his rule. Since his land goes right up to a cliff, the bird people have negotiated for the right to sneak around the edge of the fence and pass along the cliff edge. Maybe this is where the original kid fell off. A woman I chatted with on the return boat said her relatives on the island used to have some interest in birds, but they have lost it after too many years of twitchers "chirping" outside her window at 2a.m., trying to scare up a tired East European songbird.

fair isle pic by L ChernyA pretty church

The bird roll call was an experience to listen to. The less obsessive birders muttered their private count around me, not confident enough to announce it for recording in the official log. But what kind of statistics were these? For a minisculely more accurate count, there was a staff-organized census every morning. The warden and recruited helpers covered the entire island at military jogtrot and counted everything they saw. There was suppoedly some half-assed system for figuring out if they were counting the same bird twice or if someone else was going to get it. Incredibly error prone, but better than nothing when you're worried about conservation, I guess.

Juliet confessed they made her uncomfortable. She was still serious enough a birder to run off to whatever corner of the island they had seen the citrine wagtail at or the barred crossbills. But she was also nice enough to take me looking for common puffins instead.

The Siberian Bird

"Oh man, we've got to walk back, too." I was hungry.

"Hey, look, there's a crossbill!" Violet sounded pleased. I looked where she was pointing at the grass. It was a very nice red bird. She flung down her telescope and set it up on the tripod double speed. After a brief prayerful examination, she panted, "Quick, come look. The one next to it is a double-barred crossbill! That's an incredibly rare bird!" To me it looked quite similar to its plainer friend, but had 2 white bars on the wings. It was munching on dead seashore flowers, those pink ones.

We spent the next 20 minutes with me trying to photograph it with my little Nikon pressed up to her scope eyepiece. I had the impression the birds were giggling. I finally gave up and crawled G.I. Joe-style through the dried sheep shit to take a few without the magnification. They're sharper, but smaller, like the one you see posted here. I gather now, years later, that taking photos with a digital camera stuck up to a spotting scope is a venerable tradition called "digiscoping." It doesn't really matter how crappy they look, as long as they're identifiable pictures of rare birds. (Or it didn't then, anyway.)

fair isle pic by L ChernyDouble barred Crossbill

We made it home for dinner because I realized I had a $5 compass with me. We eventually hit the road at exactly the point we had left it for the heather desert march. We were now frozen stiff, soaked head to toe in condensation and old sweat, elated by little red birds and hungry for tea. We were exhausted.

Juliet was too tired to even sit up for the bird log ceremony, leaving me alone to stammer that we'd seen the double-barred crossbill somewhere on the northern fog near the Dringer or Dunger or whatsit. My photos made me a temporary celebrity. For about 20 minutes the macho list boys came up and asked meekly, "Can I see the photos?" I was even told that bird magazines would pay money for these grainy shots.fair isle pic by L ChernyWould YOU pay for these??

The poor bird probably came from Siberia or northeastern Europe, according to the reference shelves of the observatory. I still don't understand why Siberian birds are stopping on Fair Isle, and I definitely never understood why they pick this tiny island speck when huge Shetland is just 24 miles north.

Storm Petrels

More spectacular and far less dangerous was the night spent catching and banding storm petrels. Storm petrels come to land to nest at night, but otherwise stay out at sea most of the time. They are lured into fine nets by tape recordings of young birds crying. fair isle pic by L ChernyStorm Petrel wings We had a full moon and a clear sky. These birds are black, so we could't see them, only hear their wings whispering like bats and their odd cries; the only way we could find them in the net was by keeping the moon behind it when we fetched them out. (I say "we," but I really just watched.) fair isle pic by L ChernyStorm Petrel

The obs staff caught at least 20, bagged them carefully, and took them inside a hut to attach the leg bands and weigh and measure them. They told me I could use my flash because the birds were so stunned already; how nice (poor things!).

I Finally Saw One

Three days was sufficient for me on Fair Isle, as I said. I would happily go back any year during puffin nesting season though! I fair isle pic by L ChernyLeaving in nice weather. think I saw one puffin fishing in the bay off the north headland, seen through my tiny field glasses. He may have had sandeels in his mouth, but I couldn't tell for sure.

I'm currently shopping for a scope myself and hoping to see puffins off the Maine coast this summer (2006). But I'll never be a real twitcher, just like I'll never be a boy, thank goodness.