Looking back – large arrival of migrants on Fair Isle

Published on 02 February 2015 in Letters

Reading the recent accounts of ‘fall’ migration in North-east Scotland (Bourne 2015) and in north Norfolk and on Fair Isle (Aspinall 2014), reminds me of a memorable stay on Fair Isle in May 1970 when the heavens literally rained birds.

On 30th April 1970 I journeyed north by train from my home town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Aberdeen to connect with the overnight ferry to Lerwick. the following day, 1st May saw me taking – and surviving! – a stormy crossing on the island mail boat Good Shepherd III  from Grutness, at the southern tip of Shetland, to Fair Isle. I was 22 at the time and full of expectation of what birds my two-week stay would produce. I would not be disappointed.

I lodged at the brand new – and state-of-the-art for its time – Fair Isle Bird Observatory which had formerly been housed in World War II nissen huts. Roy Dennis was in his final season as warden and Brian Marshall and Iain Robertson were his assistants. Bill Oddie joined us for a week that I know he treasures too.

The first few days of May 1970 were relatively quiet on the island with most passerine migrants recorded in single figures, the exception being Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, which  peaked at 40+. The range of species present was, however, impressive and included Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, White Wagtail Motacilla alba, Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros, Whinchat Saxicola rubetra, Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis, Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia and Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus.

By 8th May and with a light but increasing southeasterly breeze, species such as Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Bluethroat Luscinia svecica, Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus, Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca, Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca and Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio were beginning to make their presence felt. A large high pressure weather system sitting nicely over Scandinavia was by 9th May producing a quite strong southeasterly airflow with mainly sunny conditions over Fair Isle. Despite a lack of classic wet conditions associated with grounding migrants (maybe some mist) enormous numbers of birds arrived on the island during 9th and 10th May. The term ‘moving carpet’ of birds was an apt description of the scene on Ward Hill. That evening, stunning tallies including 1,500 Tree Pipit, 1,000 each of Redstart, Wheatear and Willow Warbler, and 500 each of Whinchat and Pied Flycatcher were logged. Respective peaks for scarce species were Wryneck 45, Bluethroat 35 and Red-backed Shrike 25.

Spring migrant Tree Pipit in Shetland; pic by Roger Riddington

Spring migrant Tree Pipit in Shetland; pic by Roger Riddington

As if that were not enough, a supporting cast of Osprey Pandion haliaetus, Spotted Crake Porzana porzana, Little Crake Porzana parva, Corncrake Crex crex, Dotterel Charadrius morinellus, Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla, Black-headed Wagtail Motacilla flava feldegg, Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia (4) and Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana (9) were also present during 8th-12th May.

I have witnessed substantial arrivals of migrants since then, but not on this scale or with such a diverse range of species involved. I believe a fall of similar proportions occurred at Fair Isle in May 1969.


Bourne,W. R. P. 2015. The origin of a fall of migrating birds in North-east Scotland. Brit. Birds 108: 53.

Aspinall, R. 2014. When do falls rush in? Notes on the timing and frequency of falls in north Norfolk and on Fair Isle. Brit. Birds 107: 286-297.

Mike Nattrass [email protected]