Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th September
The most spectacular rare bird I have ever seen!
THURSDAY 7th SEPTEMBER
The morning started with a mad scrap to get out of the house and to Walls by 1pm, ready for the 1.30pm ferry to Foula. Met Jill and Rob at the pier, Walls and waited for our ferry. I was feeling extremely anxious, as boats and me don't go together at all. I knew that I had to lie down, in order to survive the two and a quarter hour journey. The ferry was far smaller than 'The Good Shepherd' which rocks to Fair Isle and I immediately imagined that it would rock even more violently in turbulent seas! There were eight people on the boat including Dan Pointon, Phil Harris and Chris – everyone else opted to sit outside on the deck. I laid down on the floor in the cabin with my head on a pillow roll thing I had bought, kept my eyes shut and tried to stay calm. As the journey commenced I felt fine, time ticked by and I started to feel very happy indeed, as I realised it was going to be more than ok. I dared to open my eyes to look at the time and a hour had passed. When we arrived at 3.45pm I had not felt in the slightest bit sick at all, I couldn't belive my luck! What a brilliant start to this trip!
Getting off the ferry, I had the immediate sense of a unique and special island, just like I did when I first landed on Fair Isle. The sheer height of the cliffs here was jaw dropping! Because Rob has become quite disabled since his car accident, he walks at a difficult and slow pace, so we left Rob to slowly walk with his crutch and tripod to the site where the Yellow Warbler was. Jill and I were obviously desperate to see the bird ASAP, but Mai our host, who met us at the pier to take our bags to our accommodation, said she needed to drive us there, so we knew where to walk to later. So, we were very kindly driven to the Risite Self-catering Croft House, which was about 2.5 miles away. It was a unique journey indeed! Narrow roads, spectacular views and the last part of the journey was the most uneven, pot-holed mud track you could possibly imagine – this led to the croft. I could not believe where this croft was situated, its hard to describe that feeling, when you know you are about to stay in the most far flung, remote place you have ever stayed. The croft was a dot in the distance under the edge of the cliff, just WOW!
Jill, Mai and I dropped our bags and had a lighting quick loo visit. Quick initial view of the accommodation was quirky, unique and unexpectedly stunning. Jill and Rob would be staying in the only bedroom with double bed which also had a ladder up to a single bunk bed above and I would be sleeping on the window bed (you did read that correctly) in the large living room which also had sofas and arm chairs, large dining table and chairs. There was a bookcase with a good selection of books including some copies of 'Birdwatch', 'Birding World' and 'A Twitcher's Diary' by RM! Huge bathroom with seperate bath and huge shower, two hand basins, narrow kitchen, but more than sufficient and hallway to leave boots and coats. Threw my tiny ice bag of fridge food into fridge. We jumped back in the car and then returned to the pier, all within about 5 minutes. Mai had to get back quickly to collect her delivery of food that had arrived on the ferry. Mai kindly dropped us at the sight of the bird, which was only a 2 minute walk from the pier anyway. She said "I will see you on Saturday morning" to collect us to catch the 9.30am ferry. I had bought a warm hat with me as I expected it to be cold here. It was the exact opposite, very hot!
Jill and I walked along the track to where upturned boats were next to a fairly large presumed derelict white stone house with a purple hebe bush in the front porch area with some honeysuckle also growing by the wall. Rob, Phil, Dan and Chris were also here. It didn't take too long before the Yellow Warbler appeared amongst the puple flowers. No words can truly describe my first view of this vivid yellow warbler. This was an elite bird, on another level and I felt I was watching the best bird I had ever seen. I felt privileged to be here and so lucky that I had been on annual leave this week. Here I was on a island I hoped to visit one day and now I was here and watching a mega YELLOW WARBLER!!! The entire trip felt surreal and magical. The Yellow Warbler was the biggest tease ever and would pop out for a nano second and then melt back into the bush. You hardly had time to lift your camera up, never mind hit the shutter button! Very difficult to photograph indeed! Jill got lucky with some good shots, she was standing in the right place at the right time. I did get a photograph, but only obtained the front half of the bird – see above! It was so immediately striking, it was like you were watching royalty! Every so often the Yellow Warbler would bomb down to 'Ham Yard' below by the stream, feed there for a very short time and then return to the Hebe bush. It was fascinating to observe its pattern and behaviour. It seemed to be dining well in the hebe bush and we watched it catching several insects!
Below us, was a rocky tumbling stream that led to the harbour. Seals were basking and playing close by. A lone Whooper Swan, Mallards and Eider were in the harbour area. There was a large rectangular area of scrub, trees, fuschia bushes and buddleia, known as 'Ham Yard' surrounded by a stone wall, which reminded me of the Plantation at Blakeney Point, but far richer and prettier. The stream ran past this and meandered off into the valley with large footbridge over and a grass path ascending a steep hillside to dwellings and gardens. Lots of sheep and rabbits including several black ones. The valley and light in this area was truly spectacular. The abundance of flowers and the smell of water mint was simply beautiful. What a place! I will never forget this trip, a unique experience. Dan and Phil left the island on a sceduled plane.
A lady arrived who I realised must be Donna Atherton, who, along with her husband Geoff had found the Yellow Warbler. I had made contact with her before our trip to ask for location advice etc and to congratulate her on their find. It was so lovely to actually meet her, a really lovely lady. Donna is the same lady who found and photographed the incredible Blue-cheeked Bee-eater on the 10th June, which stayed for only 4 minutes – what a find list! Donna must surely now be the best female rarity finder ever! Donna told us that in 2014 there was a Green Warbler in the garden of the croft we are staying in and also a Two-barred Crossbill!!! OMG!
We also watched a Willow Warbler in the same hebe bush as the Yellow Warbler. There was a Barred Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and Rosefinch around in the area too, but I didn't see any of these today. Jill managed to see and get a picture of the Rosefinch, after she walked along the top road to the gardens. Another chartered ferry (from Scalloway I think) turned up later with more birders – the ferry waited for them and then took them back, so they were on limited time. It was a great feeling knowing you were the first ones to arrive and that you were staying out until Saturday morning! Jill and I were quietly, very worried about Rob – there was no way in a million years that he would be able to walk back to our accommodation that evening, we would have a job ourselves, with the very steep roads! Very luckily Donna very kindly agreed to take Rob, as far as the beginning pot holed track. This was much earlier than Rob wanted to leave, but he didn't really have much choice. Jill and I stayed birding. The Yellow Warbler stayed until dusk.
After advice sort from Donna about when to leave to walk back before darkness fell, Jill and I started walking to our accommodation at 7pm. The gardens on the top road were truly stunning – I think one of them was Donna's. So many variety of flowers in this garden, designed in several borders and grass paths running between them. We watched a Willow Warbler, some House Sparrows and a Blackbird in here. This must be a really got spot for migrants, an amazing garden. Jill and I were fascinated by abandoned cars, being used as greenhouses with plants growing in them – totally unique! As we turned right at the end of the road, we were in awe of a distant loch under the cliffs, which I later found our was called Mill Loch "a lochan that represents the largest body of freshwater on the island", this lies quarter of a mile to the west of Ham, the island's principal settlement. We passed the school, which we were told had five pupils. The creativity of the playground equipment was something you won't see in any other playground!
We continued our walk, passing more abandoned cars, sheep and valleys. There was a particularly interesting field, which held several water pools and I remarked that this looked good for a Citrine Wagtail in the morning. It was a tough walk, very tough, not so much for Jill, but it was for me. I can still walk very fast on a flat road, but these steep inclines took my breath away, I am not at my fittest right now. The walk with stopping took just over a hour. We were very pleased to eventually spot our little croft in the far distance. I scanned with my binoculars and was shocked to see that Rob was still walking along the pot-holed track! We caught up with him and he was fine, but he had sat down and had a rest part way along the track.
It was so fabulous to be in this croft. We were all tired, but managed to get ourselves some tea cooked up. I opted for a packet of microwave rice I had bought and half a left over sandwich. I was far more thirsty than hungry and couldn't stop drinking. We chatted for a bit after tea. The shower pressure was amazing and you didn't even need to alter the temperature, very efficient. It was so funny, I couldn't climb up to my high window bed, so had to get a chair to get into bed! Hilarious! I only have one criticism of this first class croft and that is the fact that there were no windows to open by my bedside and it was very hot, too hot to sleep properly. There were windows that opened at the opposite end of the living room by the dining table, but it would have been dangerous to leave these open in case the wind got up and it did! It was lashing down with rain in the middle of the night. No WiFi in the croft and minimal one bar of signal on vodafone, so no blog posts from me until I return to mainland Shetland. Apparently EE has the best coverage on the island.
FRIDAY 8th SEPTEMBER
Jill and I got up very early, had a quick breakfast and searched a couple of geos and a burn that Donna had recommended checking out and also to view the gigantic Gaada Stack, wow, doesn't sum it up! The views on the edge of the cliffs were breathtaking! Sadly no migrants of note, but plenty of Rock and Meadow Pipits, Fulmars, Shags and Bonxies, including one resting on the hill, that quite simply didn't want to budge, which gave us a good photo opportunity. Rob stayed in the croft to have a rest and he hoped very much that someone would be able to pick him up later in a car.
With food packed for the entire day, Jill and I started our long walk back to Ham. The first part of the walk was the most difficult, a long ascent before we got to the last downhill/flat stretch to the gardens and Ham Yard. It was another beautiful and very warm day. Just before the hebe bush, we couldn't believe our luck – a Crossbill in stunning early morning light was sat on the apex of a roof! Moments after this we discovered the Yellow Warbler was still there, feeding in the hebe bush! We put the news out on the WhatsApp group asap. The Yellow Warbler was much more active than it had been last night and I eventually got some some very pleasing shots today. Chris had camped out by the stream in his sleeping bag last night. I got the impression he was on such a high from the seeing the Yellow Warbler yesterday, that he couldn't be bothered to put his tent up. We heard this morning, that he regretted that, when laying in sleeping bag with fork lightening and rain flashing down!!! Jill and I remarked that we could hear rain last night, but no storm, how odd! Maybe I did get some sleep?!
At one point this morning, we experienced something very unique. Donna, Jill, Rebecca and I stood there in a row watching a mega Yellow Warbler and there wasn't a man in sight! This in itself was a rare experience indeed!!! Later on Jill and I headed up the grassy path above the stream to the top of the hill and we got lucky with a Rosefinch perched on a fence wire. It was worth the climb up for the views alone!
Later, Jill and I walked along the top road, where we watched a Lesser Whitethroat in a garden distantly. Returned to the Yellow Warbler. Mai arrived in her car to go and make up the bed in the accommodation for Rebecca and then very kindly picked up Rob and brought him back to join us, he was very pleased! I went for a little walk by myself and followed the stream from the footbridge and flushed a Snipe. Twite seen here and a Pied Wagtail. Back at Ham Yard, I found a Redpoll perched in a fir tree. Walked back up the slope to join Jill, Rob and Rebecca. Continued photographing and watching the Yellow Warbler.
Rebecca had been lucky enough to be able to order a meal to be cooked for her by Mai and being as Mai had to deliver this, she very kindly picked us all up at 7.30pm and took us back to the croft, this saved a long and difficult walk back! Jill, Rebecca and I walked the last section of the bumpy track, to save the car suspension. We had a quick look round each other's accommodation for future reference and then cooked tea. We all retired much earlier than last night, as we had arranged with Mai to pick us up at 7am tomorrow with our luggage, so we could get some birding in before the 9.30am ferry. Took an anti-sickness tablet, which did knock me out a bit, so got more sleep than the previous night.
SATURDAY 9th SEPTEMBER
All of us were up early. My alarm went off at 5.30am. Had a shower, porridge breakfast and packed our gear up. Photographed the sunrise! Jill flushed a Jack Snipe, before I went out of the door. Mai picked Rob up at 7am and to save her car suspension, Jill, Rebbeca and I had walked up the pot holed track to the top of the road just before she picked Rob up and then we all got in the car on the 'good' road. Mai took us to the pier to drop our luggage off.
Yellow Warbler was still there in its favoured hebe bush in brilliant light! We had a couple of hours before the ferry departed. I walked down to Ham yard for a while and hoped I would catch the Yellow Warbler in a different pose when it did its usual circuit from the hebe bush to the sycamore trees in Ham Yard. I did see it fly down here, but it was moving about constantly and obscured by leaves. I had a nano second view of what could only have been a Reed or Blyth's Reed Warbler perched on the stone wall, not long enough for me to lift the camera up annoyingly and I didn't see it again. No sign of the Barred Warbler for me, but I did see the Redpoll again and a Blackbird. I could swear that I could hear a Goldcrest tweeting away, but didn't see it. A Wren was also seen, perched on the wall. The Whooper Swan remained in the harbour. After the Yellow Warbler did its usual circuit of bombing down to Ham Yard at just after 9am, the others said it was a good time to walk down to the pier, ready for the ferry. I stubbornly remained for a short while. This paid off as the Yellow Warbler as far more showy with just one person standing there! Some of my best photos of the entire trip were taken in that 15 minute window – I always stay until the very end! Tore myself away and got the pier at 9.17am, just as they were loading the gear into the ferry.
The ferry back to Walls was much rougher than the journey here, but I still felt absolutely fine, laying down on the floor, whilst everyone else sat outside on deck. We arrived in Walls at about 10.40am. Loaded up our cars and all departed. I didn't leave for a while though, I just wanted to gather my thoughts and sat for a while, enjoying the beautiful view over the harbour and thinking about what an amazing experience we had all had. I will definately be returning to Foula! A truly unique, stunning and remote location!
Huge thanks to Donna Atherton for finding this spectacular American Yellow Warbler and for her company and advice throughout our stay, to Jill and Rob for their entertaining and good company, to the Ferry staff, who made my journey more than bearable and lastly to Mai the hostess of our stunning Ristie Self Catering croft, who went above and beyond in looking after us all. Looking forward to visiting Foula again soon! A highly recommended visit!