The unsound approach


Starring Rob Martin, Alex Lees, James Gilroy and Rik Addison.


Flashback to '03: mid-October and the team is sat in the Mermaid on St Mary’s, grumbling about the perpetual nor'westers and nationwide rarity drought. We had been thrashing the isles for the previous few days and had found nothing but a single lousy Wryneck. At some stage during the evening, somewhere between the fourth and fifth pint, Andy Holden’s pager awoke from it's slumber and told us that Black-throated Thrush, Citrine Wag, Blyth's Reed and Pechora had all just arrived on Foula. Until that time, no-one really thought of the island as a top class vagrant trap, and we were shocked to see it produce such a good haul in such poor conditions. In the years since then, the diligent efforts of 'Team Found on Foula' (aka "those lucky f*ckers") have proved the island to be up there with the the magic isle itself.


Since getting fed up with the shoulder-barge fest on Scilly, we've headed north for a number of autumn Mainland Shetland trips  (e.g. '06 & '07). Although these have produced some decent hauls of birds, our totals have scarcely been close to those emerging annually from the team on Foula. Clearly the island has somewhing special, and for a long time we've wanted to get in on the action. We sent out some feelers, and the vibe was that the island was fully ‘covered’ in autumns by the regular teams. Spring, on the other hand, was another matter - with apparently no fully resident birders, we fancied our chances...
Fast-forward to May 2008. In Norfolk, the spring has been an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it was bad karma for twitching Black Lark (well, f*ck karma, it was mega) or maybe it just wasn’t our spring, but by the end of the month we'd all racked up hundreds of hours in the field and found next to nothing (aside from Rob’s five minutes of magic at Horsey). Nationally it hadn’t been great either, despite weeks of promising weather. Then, in the last few days of May, the east coast finally came good with a proper old-school fall of scarce. The best of the action timed itself perfectly for our travel days, and as we headed up the spine of the country we had to put up with a series of hideous gripping texts from Mitchell and the UEA youth, out poaching rares on our favourite Norfolk patches. We knew we had it all to play for. We kept reminding ourselves that here is no better place to find a 1st for Britain than June in the Northern Isles. We were hoping that out luck was building up to something.

Biggins and the top of Hametoun valley from South Ness (AL)

Finding on Foula

We had high expectations for Foula. We kew we would have to work hard, we knew it would be tough. We were right. The Foula day started at 5am (sometimes before) and ended at 9pm (sometimes after); we walked and walked, we walked some more, we took ibuprofen, we kept walking. We covered a minimum of 15 miles per day per person across clifftops, along roads, walls, ditches, burns, bogs, we got the shit kicked out of us by Bonxies, we walked some more, we ate cheese, we walked until we were so exhausted we collapsed where we stood. We found migrants wherever we looked: clifftops, roads, walls, ditches, burns, bogs, gardens, fields, peat stacks. We knew that if we didn't cover every square metre every day, we could easilly miss that 1st spring Lancey or the flying visit from Irania.


Foula, before and after (RM) Top row were taken on the boat heading out, when the eager beavers were grilling every passing Murre for Thick-billed. The lower row shows the equivalent journey on the way back. Yes, it was a tough week.


Foula is basically a game of two halves, or maybe three thirds. One half is the mountainous west side with some of the highest sea cliffs in the world (1200 ft) and their attendant seabird cities, whilst the remainder divides up nicely into the 'checkable' north and south crofting areas. We felt that many birds probably made landfall in the inhospitable west and then filtered down to the east after a few days. Many of the sites are dealt with on the Found on Foula website. These aren't the be-all and end-all however, there were other hotspots - e.g. our hot tip for a new yank passerine is the Sneck of the Noup on the west cliffs. This long (c. 60m) deep fissure represents the only cover for kilometres and was inevitably a very productive migrant trap. 


Sneck of the Noup (AL)

Previous Foula regulars have been lambasted for not getting news out. It's not our game to judge, but getting news out certainly isn’t a piece of cake. Phone reception is available for vodaphone users only, with the only patch of proper reception being the 15 square metres in front of the radar dishes at Ham. There is now a pay-phone at the ‘airport’, however. Some islanders are rather outsider-phobic,and we had to refrain from any typical comedy antics - crossing fences is strictly taboo. Our team of 4 people represented 22% of the population of the entire island. Sensitive is a word we’d use here. That said, some folks were very happy for us to look in their gardens. The general vibe on the street was that they don't like having to deal with twitches - basically the islanders themselves have to deal with organising fire cover etc for the charter flights. That's lots of irritating effort for people who aren't remotely interested in Sibe Rubythroats. Hopefully we managed to convince some of them that bringing hundreds of sweating pro-twitchers to the island might be a good laugh . In the event, despite the constant feeling that it could happen at any minute on any day, the mega never materialised for us.

Lower Hametoun valley and crofts (Broadfoot is top left - be careful to avoid the nutty proffessor) (AL)

Frustrations aside, we were staggered by the number of common migrants that arrived during the week. We had gone up with expectations of a  common/ scarce/ rare ratio of 12: 4: 1. What we got was more like 200: 20: 1. Who would have thought that common finches and thrushes and warblers would be passing in such numbers so late? Day by day we kept notching up the scarce - better numbers than they were getting on Fair Isle, and the rest of Shetland barely got a look in. Previous springs have always seen a smattering of rares on the Isle, so we knew it could produce the goods, but we had to work so hard for our one bird. The news from Fair Isle on the 6th was a hammer blow, tempered only by the fact that it was a crap Estrilid from the near-Continent and not a mega yank or
 sibe. Still a bird from ‘outside the box’, as it were.  When semi-resident Foula birder Geoff Atherton saw us off on the last day, he left us with the words  "that bird should have been yours…!". Those words were ringing in our ears as we passed by Fair Isle on the ferry home. You win some, you lose some. Foula is definitely amazing - underwatched most of the time, it has scant cover, and its isolation puts it second only to Fair Isle for geographical potential to attract vagrants. It already has a track record, we think that this may not even do it justice.

Incomming (AL)


The Skor

Here's our annotated semi-systematic list of noteworthy records and migrants: 

Quail (Coturnix coturnix)

1 flushed from besides the Westerburn twice on the 4th; about 10 per year on Shetland/Fair Isle.


Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata)

Several pairs apparently nesting.

Red-throated Divers, Foula (RM)


Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer)

Up to 8 on the sea, most in full summer plumage, no banana-bill despite much effort.

Great Northern Diver, Ham Voe, 6th June, (RA)


Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

One female on the 2nd and 3rd.


Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)

One on the 1st.


Hobby  (Falco subbuteo)

One adult on the 5th and 6th, first appeared at the south end of the island and last seen in the north at Stremness. About 100 previous Shetand records.

Hobby wondering where it all went wrong... (JG)


Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)

One on the 1st-2nd and presumably the same on the 4th.


Wood Sandpiper  (Tringa glareola)

One on the 5th.


Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus)

Apparently slower off the mark than Bonxie, most pairs did not seem to be on eggs yet or at least weren't very beligerent.


Great Skua  (Stercorarius skua)

Abundant; the bachelor club at Mill Loch numbered over 200 some days. Being smashed about the head offered a respite from the tedium of trudging over the moors between the migrant hotspots. We watched them turning Puffins inside-out while they were still alive - respect. 

Club Bonxie (AL)



Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

Tystie, East Cliffs, Kingdom would be proud..... (RA)


Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Spectacular arrival of birds on the west cliffs on the 6th, at least 1000 came ashore... lovely

Puffins, west cliffs (AL)


Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus)

One on the 4th and 5th around Ham Valley, a scarce migrant to Shetland.

Cuckoo confusing the starlings (JG)


Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

One tatty bird seen on the 1st/2nd and 5th/6th at both ends of the island.

Short-eared Owl, Harrier, 6th June (RA)


Common Swift (Apus apus)

Up to 7.


Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)

High counts: 12 on 1st and 16 on 6th.


House Martin (Delichon urbicum)

Highest count 10 on 5th, experimented with nest-building.


Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis)

3 31st, 1 1st-3rd and 2 4th, usually Hametoun.

Tree Pipit, Hametoun, 1st June (RA)


Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava)

One male Grey-headed Wagtail (M. f. thunbergii) on 1st and one female flava of indeterminate ssp. on 6th.

flava ssp. Hametoun, 6th June (RM) 


Grey Wagtail  (Motacilla cinerea)

One in Ham Valley on the 5th. Still can't believe we got this bastard and not a Citrine.


Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba)

Up to 3 White wagtails (M. a. alba) with a few Pied Wagtails throughout.


Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Indigenous birds should be split-mungus.


Dunnock (Prunella modularis)

One on the 1st/2nd and one on the 5th.


Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

One on the 31st in the south and 1 2nd-4th in Ham Valley.


Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia)

JG outdid himself with a brief Thrush Nightingale found in a tiny geo on the NE cliffs at about 7.30pm on the 4th. Despite the rest of the crew being miraculously in CB range and managing to arrive within 30 minutes, the bird was not seen again. Grip-arrific.  


Getting migrants on cliff faces is one of the best things about Shetland, but it requires loads of leg work and a fair wedge of death risk. The biggest problem with cliffs is the birds tend to fly down them and not fly back up again - and this one was no different. Thank god once again for the digital age - with the right kit, 15 seconds is all you need to save yourself from single-observer hell. All sing along - DSLR, four capital letters…. 




The bird of the trip, unfortunately (JG). For all those haters of the name Sprosser - just take a look at this bird. However you look at it, it's one dull bastard. Not an interesting or attractive mark on it. Sprosser just suits it so well. The name sums it up perfectly. Does is it look that much more Thrushlike than Common Nightingale? No. It's a Sprosser and it always will be! Wenn der kuchen redet, haben die krümel pause!


Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica)

Resident birder Geoff got five minutes away from building his croft and pulled this elusive female out from under our feet. It showed well in Hametoun on the 2nd.


Red-spotted Bluethroat, Hametoun, 2nd June (RA)


Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

One female present 1st-6th in Hametoun.


Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

One on the 1st/2nd at Burns and one in Ham Valley on the 7th.


Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Common breeder, a few individuals were good candidates for Greenland Wheatears (O. o. leucorhoa)


Ring Ouzel (Turdus torquatus)

A late bird present in the north 2nd - 5th.

Ring Ouzel, on moor near Burns, 2nd June (AL)


Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Common breeder, one in a geo on the west cliffs on the 6th was probably a migrant.


Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos)

One in the north from 4th-6th, originally on the cliffs before relocating to Harrier.

Song Thrush, Harrier, 6th June (RM)


Redwing (Turdus iliacus)

Up to 4, breeding behaviour observed.


Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)

A single in Ham valley on the 4th was a massively unjust reward for days of trampling through iris beds, with an eye for better Locusts. A 'very scarce passage migrant' on Shetland. Shit.

Grasshopper Warbler, Ham valley, 4th June (RA). No, really.


Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

One in the Westerburn on the 5th and 6th should've been rarer.  


Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris)

A really good showing - at times they seemed to be chortling from every patch of decent cover. Good opportunities to get to grips with these distinctive beauties. One at Broadfoot on the 31st, one in the Ham Valley and one in the Westerburn on the 1st, 7 on the 4th (1 Westerburn, 2 Ham Valley (video), 2 Broadfoot, 2 Hametoun), 2 on 5th (1 Ham Valley, 1 Hametoun), 3 on 6th (2 Hametoun, 1 Ham) and 4 on 7th  (2 Ham, 2 Hametoun). Most were remarkably showy. 08/marsh warbler, ham valley.mp3 

Marsh Warbler recording from Ham Valley, 1st June, note the pleasing backing vocals provided by Common Rosefinch, Starling, Fulmar, Snipe and domestic fowl (AL recorded with Senn. ME67 + MD Walkman)


Marsh Warbler, Ham Valley, 2nd June (RA)


Marsh Warbler, Westerburn, 4th June (RA)


Marsh Warbler, the other Ham Valley one, 4th June (JG)


Marsh Warbler, Broadfoot 4th June (AL)


Marsh Warbler, Ham Valley, 6th June (RM)


Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina)

Again, a fantastic showing. By the end of the week we were barely lifting our bins for them. Amazing given the rapidly increasing rarity status of this species in the UK over the last decade. One Niggards on 31st, 2 in Hametoun/Broadfoot on 1st/2nd dropping to 1 on 3rd, at least 5 on the isle on 4th (2 Ham Valley and 2 Hametoun/Broadfoot, 1 South Ness) with 2 on 5th (1 Hametoun, 1 Ham).


Icterine Warbler, Hametoun, 4th June (JG)


Icterine Warbler, Hametoun, 5th June (RM)


Icterine Warbler, Broadfoot 5th June (AL)


Icterine Warbler, Ham Valley 6th June (RA)


Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)

1-6 most days, mostly in the Ham Valley/NE Cliffs.


Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin)

The commonest Sylvia, peak day count 10 on the 6th, found just about everywhere we managed to look....


Britain's most exciting gardens (JG)


Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca)

Peak counts 7 on 31st and 10 on 4th, never heard to sing.

Lesser Whiethroat, Hametoun, (RA)


Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis)

2 on 31st, 1 on 2nd, 2 on 4th and 1 6th.


Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

1 1st-3rd, 2 4th and 3 5th-6th. Showed a penchant for the cliffs.


Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus)

Typically 3 31st - 7th, except 15 on 1st and 6 on 6th.


Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) 1 in a deep geo on the west cliffs on 5th/6th, who knows how long the little bugger had been down there.....


Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)

Typically the most obvious migrant, 20 on the 31st dropped to 4 by the 3rd, followed by a new arrival of 15 on the 4th falling to 3 by the 7th.  

Spotted Flycatcher, Burns, 5th June (AL)


Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca)

1 female Broadfoot on the 31st with a male there the next day, a new female in Hametoun on the 6th.

Pied Flycatcher, Broadfoot, 1st June (AL)


Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio)

Plenty - we practically got one for every fence. 1 female in Hametoun on the 31st followed by an arrival of 5 on the 2nd (1 male Harrier, 3 females plus 1 male Hametoun), 1 female present on the 2nd and none on the 3rd. 5 females present on the 4th (all bar one south end) with 3 on the 5th. 2 in the north on 6th included another male which was still present on 7th.

Red-backed Shrike, Harrier, 1st June (RA)


Red-backed Shrike, Broadfoot, 1st June (RA)


Red-backed Shrike, Burns, 4th June (RM). On finding this bird, the frustration of getting only scarce became too much for RM, and in a fit of rage he kicked its face in.


Red-backed Shrike, Hametoun, 5th June (AL)


Red-backed Shrike, Stremness, 6th June (RA)


Red-backed Shrike, Harrier, 6th June (RA)


Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

One in Ham Valley on 6th.

Jackdaw, Ham Valley, 6th June (RM)


Raven (Corvus corax)

Monster pair on the east cliffs that hunt Fulmars by grabbing them mid-flight by their primaries and smashing them onto the cliffs. Cool.


Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)

One on 1st/2nd and then an arrival of 3 on the 5th and 4 on the 6th.  


Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)

One female in Hametoun 1st-6th at least.


Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

1 on 1st rising to 6 on 6th. From the Alps?


Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus)

Loads. Grot enough for everyone. 2 at Broadfoot on 31st with 8 on the island the next day (2 Harrier: video, 2 Ham Valley, 4 Hametoun/Broadfoot), 2 the next day at Harrier and 1 on 4th/5th in the Ham Valley (a new bird with some red on the face). Probably some more were overlooked as unobtrusive when not singing. 08/common rosefinch, ham, 1st june.mp3Common Rosefinch, Ham Valley, 1st June, with Great and Arctic Skuas, Skylark, Fulmar and Snipe joining in the chorus - it must have felt right at home... (AL)

Common Rosefinch, Ham Valley, 1st June (RA)


Common Rosefinches, Broadfoot, 31st May (AL)


Common Rosefinch, Harrier 1st June (AL)

Snow Bunting (Plectophenax nivalis)

One at Stremness on 3rd.


Also seen:

Greylag Goose (Anser anser) 4 on the sea on the 5th, Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) Up to 8 present throughout, Common Teal (Anas crecca) 4 on the 4th, Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula), 2 on the 3rd, Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) 2 on the 3rd, Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra) 2 on the 2nd, Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) Mega dross, breeds on cliffs, hillsides, stone walls, ruins, abandonned cars, any static object. Observed vomiting on ravens, domestic geese, dogs and punkbirders, Gannet (Morus bassanus), Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) One on the 31st, plus a dead one, Eurasian Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria), Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Dunlin (Calidris alpina), Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), Up to 8, Curlew (Numenius arquata), Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) One present in Hametoun from the 1st-6th at least. Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) 2 on the 2nd and one on the 3rd in Ham Valley, Redshank (Tringa totanus), Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) Up to 7 around South Ness, Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) Population crash-tastic, owing to synergistic interaction of Bonxies plus over-fishing, Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) Up to 3, Common Gull (Larus canus), Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), Herring Gull  (Larus argentatus) Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), 2 on the 31st, Arctic Tern  (Sterna paradisaea) Small colony in the south, Guillemot (Uria aalge), Razorbill (Alca torda), Rock Dove (Columba livia), Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus), One on the 1st and 3rd, Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) One threesome roving around, Skylark (Alauda arvensis), Meadow Pipit  (Anthus pratensis), Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus), Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix), Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Twite (Carduelis flavirostris)

Final Thoughts:


Remember to boost your mental health when staying on Foula, so don't go in teams of less than 4 or you are screwed. We think that generally not living on Foula is a good way of boosting your mental health. (AL)


Foula uses for abandoned cars #4: chicken coup. (AL)


Beautiful Foula. Bob the hand-reared Bonxie is king of all he surveys in his high-quality territory. From his lofty perch he is able to swoop down and kleptoparasitise bread thrown out to the sheep. Our digs are featured in the background, cheers Brian. (RM)


'Shaw we'll get the news out' (AL)


The search for the next Harry Potter nemesis is over (RM) 


Shetlanders have such a way with names.... (AL)


AL, wishing he was at Wasteview Care Centre (RA). Every day in the field AL carried a tripod plus big swaro, an old SLR + sigma 500ml lens, 2 compact digital cameras (don't ask), 1st aid kit, microphone and md player, big swiss-army knife, CB, 17 bars of chocolate, peanuts, sandwiches, 500ml water etc.. Similar loads were also carried by JG and RM. Rik, on the other hand, carried a DSLR, CB and a pack of cigs. He didn't even wear a coat. Three of us now need major lumbar surgery, although the fourth may still need new lungs and a new liver.   


Despite being isolated from human females for a full seven days, we still weren't tempted... (JG)