Fair Isle trip: Killer experience

The population of Fair Isle is around 55. On the day that I arrived on Fair Isle, two guests stopping at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory accommodation were getting married. The whole island was invited to their wedding. The turnout was good, but not half as many as those who appeared when a pod of eight killer whales were sighted off the coast of Fair Isle on Wednesday afternoon.

They were first spotted in an area known as North Haven at around 14.20. At this time, I had just finished my lunch and was sat in the Observatory lounge drinking a cup of tea and contemplating what to do with my afternoon. All of a sudden, around the waters’ edge at North Haven, a couple of folk started running back and forth and making a fuss. We knew that something was up. At this point I had no idea what was going on, until someone shouted through the Observatory building ‘Killer Whales, North Haven’.

I had never been in such a panic in all my life. I grabbed the necessaries, my binoculars and coat, and fled down to North Haven. In doing so I tripped over multiple times, there was no time to do laces! The rush was surreal. Trying to describe the excitement at this point is impossible, I was about to see my first killer whale! Not only this, but the pod was only around 100 metres from where I stood. ‘Where I stood’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I could barely stand up, keep still or shut up.

We observed the pod in North Haven from 14.30 until 14.35. In swimming out of view, they left behind a bunch of giddy and breathless observers. Along with an injured seal, which towed itself across the bay before dunking out of view.

15 minutes later, we were treated to a second experience. The pod swam around the headland and into South Haven. There they displayed around the perimeter of the bay before carrying on south. Here, me and my friend Sarah watched from the headland above, meaning we got a bird’s eye view of the whales moving through the water. Flat areas appeared on the surface of the sea, we knew that an appearance was looming. The suspense was unbearable. You knew at any moment one would come into view.

In South Haven, we watched them for around 20 minutes before they continued moving south. This time around, we drove to the south point of the island, where it was highly likely they were going to pass. And there they were. We scrambled down the cliff and across the rocks to get as close as possible to the waters’ edge. Again, they were a matter of metres offshore. Here we had the privilege of watching them for 25 minutes until they disappeared.

The excitement and hysteria of seeing such a fantastic species, and so close, was incredible! Perhaps one of my greatest wildlife experiences.

You can view photos of the pod, taken by FIBO staff, by clicking here.

A video recorded by the FIBO.

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Fair Isle trip: An unexpected two days on Shetland

I knew that travelling to Fair Isle by public transport wasn’t going to be easy. After my last A Level exam on Thursday, I caught the train up to Aberdeen on Friday morning, which took 7 hours, then the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland. Despite my lack of sleep on the ferry due to the excitement of visiting Shetland and Fair Isle for the first time, the crossing was fantastic. From the boat, I spotted three dolphins just after leaving Aberdeen and got splendid views of fulmars, gannets, auks and other sea birds up until 11pm. Stepping off the boat at Lerwick, in terms of climate, was like stepping back 2 months in time. A spring morning: crisp and a bit chilly. Quite different to the 30 degrees and sunshine that I’d experienced back home just a few days before.

Once I’d arrived on Shetland, I had to get the bus from Lerwick to Grutness, where I was due to be getting the ferry to Fair Isle. On the bus journey, I got my first view of Shetland. I was absolutely memorised by how beautiful the scenery was. It partly reminded me of areas of the Peak District where I’ve spent hours walking, but this was contrasted with an incredible coastline and some spectacular formations. The bus journey was quite an experience, even the bus driver was a character. At the post office he pulled up, leaving the bus running, and ran in. He then returned with a bottle of Iron Brew. At the junction of my stop, he pronounced with his broad highland accent ‘Grutness’.

Whilst walking down to the ferry terminal, lugging my suitcase, I paused every few metres to watch the common terns doing their thing over the water. I arrived at the terminal 40 minutes early so once I’d found the waiting ‘shed’, I dumped my luggage, grabbed my binoculars, braved winds that I hadn’t experienced since at least January, and explored the water’s edge. Immediately after stepping out of the waiting room, a Bonxie (Great Skua) flew straight over my head. Wow! This was very exciting! Skuas are one of my favourite birds and to see one that close when I’m used to watching them miles out at sea, was incredible! It wasn’t long until I’d seen a few more bonxies, along with lots of fulmars, common terns, a pair of common scoter with chicks on the sea and a few auks.

It was a good job that I enjoyed the bus ride so much and a good job that I’d fallen in love with Shetland already, as the next morning I found myself back on the same bus heading for Sumburgh. After waiting at the ferry port well past the time that the boat was supposed to depart, I discovered that due to the weather, all sailing had been cancelled. Thus, I had to sort some accommodation for two nights as it was unlikely that there would be any sailing until Monday now. Although this was a bit of pain, I seized the opportunity of spending some time on Shetland for the first time.

After researching the best places to visit, I concluded that since I was relying on public transport, I would visit an area known as Sumburgh Head. The area is an RSPB nature reserve at the very south of the island. On the cliffs in the area, there are breeding seabirds such as guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, along with skuas (Bonxies and Arctic) breeding on the hills nearby and the fairly regular orca sightings. The bus ride to Sumburgh was another interesting journey. This time an oystercatcher got hit by the bus! Once I arrived, since I’d missed my morning cup of tea, I headed for the café. En route, I watched an Arctic Skua mobbing common terns and observed the puffins, fulmars, cormorants and other birds on the cliff side.

The view from the café was incredible. It looked over the Sumburgh area with views of lovely Shetland beyond. As I sat sipping my tea (I opted out of a slice of cake as I had a bag of jam donuts for lunch), I watched skuas and fulmars gliding past at eye level. A fantastic experience.

Following this, I found myself a sheltered area along the cliff, set my scope up and did some sea watching for a few hours. I had an excellent day. I particularly enjoyed flicking from sea watching to observing those birds on the cliff side. The skuas were the highlight though. Despite there only being a few individuals about, observing them so close was fantastic! The only other place that I had seen skuas before was at Spurn. A part from the odd bird closer inland, I’m used to seeing little dots through my scope that are miles out at sea, so this was something special!

However, little did I know that in 24 hours’ time I would have arrived on Fair Isle and be watching arctic skuas with chicks and on eggs.

Back from the text books

On Thursday morning, I had my last A Level exam. Meaning that I have officially finished school. After spending the last two years pushing and shoving myself through lessons and to commit to my A Levels, this is a huge relief and incredibly exciting. I’m now looking forward to not only what the next few months will hold, but what I’ll be doing post-school.

Over the last few months, I’ve felt as though I’ve been very quiet. Thus, I’ve felt quite guilty about this. Very few and no regular blog posts or writing elsewhere, spending fewer and fewer hours a week on my local patch as the weeks went by and the constant pressure to give up doing the things I love doing to stick my head in text books for hours on end instead. Although this was the ‘necessary’ thing to do so that I could succeed in my revision, pressure so bad that you have to give up what you enjoy doing altogether has its toll. However, it’s all over and hopefully the struggle will have paid off.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that exam results don’t represent anyone’s true intelligence or what they’re capable of achieving. This is a key lesson that I’ve learnt over the last two years. All the information that I retained in my lessons will never match what I’ve learnt when I’ve been out birding, using trail cameras or out walking. If you ask me a question related to what was in my English exam on Thursday in a month’s time, I could almost guarantee that I won’t have a clue what the answer is. Something that reflects this is my predicted grades. In English, I’ll be lucky if I get a C grade, however in a project I completed as part of an AS level (known as an Extended Project Qualification) about the impacts of Nature Deficit Disorder, I’m predicted to get an A grade. The difference being, although I enjoyed English as a subject, I was forced to retain information that may appear in my exam but for my EPQ, I wrote about something that really interests me.

However, I couldn’t keep myself completely absent from everything over the last few months. For a starter, I’ve been practising for my 191-mile trek that I’m doing next month to raise some cash for the BTO’s swift project. Practising has been a great excuse to take a break from my revision, get some exercise and spend some quality time outdoors. From cycling the lanes close to where I live in Staffordshire to long distance practise walks every few weekends. And since the beginning of May, these outings were made even more delightful by the accompaniment of swifts.

So far, I’ve raised over £1000, which I’m thrilled about. This cash will go towards funding the BTO’s swift project, which includes tagging and monitoring them to find out the reasons for the decline that we’ve seen in recent years. It’s incredibly important work. You can read more or support my walk by clicking here.

A momentary moment for me in the last few months, which I didn’t get the chance to blog about at the time, was voting for the first time! Some may remember my multiple blog posts around the time of the EU referendum last year and the 2015 General Election. I wrote about how the way in which the country voted was important when it came to future protection of the natural environment. I also wrote about my disappointment in not having a voice due to not being able to vote. The argument to be able to vote at 16 is a very valid one. Although many believe that young people are either not educated enough about politics or simply don’t care enough to make the right decision, I think after the results of the recent General Election, young people are beginning to prove those who doubted them wrong.

I was pleased with the result too. It was a rare occasion as I felt positive. After losing her majority, Theresa May’s attempt to repeal the Hunting Act has now been torn apart and with rising popularity of the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, it gives a glimmer of hope as the end of the Tory government and chaos might be within reach. This could spell the end to the badger cull, bring better protection for the environment post-Brexit and bring in a government that understands and realises the importance of the natural world. Unlike last week’s events when Michael Gove was made secretary for the environment. A man who believes that environmental protection is a nuisance, attempted to remove climate change education from the curriculum whilst he was secretary for education and doesn’t see a problem with pesticides.

In the run up to the General Election, I did manage to attend a few rallies and demonstrations. A few weeks before the General Election, there was a debate on the badger cull following the success of Simon King’s petition that reached over 100,000 signatures. Although it was certain that the result of the debate was unlikely to bring any positive change, I was desperate to make it down to London so that I could join others outside the Houses of Parliament before the debate began. Unfortunately, the attendance of ministers and MPs was as it was expected to be, very poor. As was any ‘debating’ or any outcome. Following the overall uncertainty in the UK and for the government over the last few months, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the cull this year. A few months back, it looked as though it was going to be the worst cull yet with further cull zones across the UK and more freedom for land owners. However, recent events and challenges facing the government could force them to change their minds.

Another interesting march I went on was one of the ‘March for Science’ events that were taking place across the world. The one I attended was in Bristol. It was another excellent day and I was surrounded by passionate individuals fighting for the sake of science and in response to recent actions and comments made by certain individuals, in particular, Donald Trump.

After the success of my peregrine watch at Lichfield Cathedral last year, I decided that it would be wrong not to repeat the events this year. Thus, I put a poster together, sorted some dates and managed to get hold of some optics. This was all with the help of some lovely local birders. We organised three mornings in total, all of which were very successful with many coming to have a look. We were also treated with some brilliant views of the birds. I absolutely loved being out doing these watches. It was brilliant to engage with people who had no idea about the birds being there. But when we told them what they were and after they had a look through the scope, the look on their faces was the best!

Unfortunately, I won’t be in Lichfield to do the watch events at the cathedral next year but I’m sure that they will be taken over by others. This is because I’ll be a student at Hull University from September. Those who know me fairly well will be aware that a reason why I’m so excited to go to Hull is because I’ll be within stones throwing distance of one of my favourite places in the world, Spurn. Whilst taking my exams and during times of intense studying, I spent a lot of time at Spurn. I could revise, take very effective breaks and enjoy decent bouts of birding. On my last trip, a week before my exams started, I had one of the craziest days ever. From sat at a desk revising for my English exam, I walked a matter of steps and saw my first Honey Buzzard! My reward for a mornings hard work.

Now my exams are all over, I have a lot planned over the summer. In fact, whilst writing this post I was on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland on the way to my first stop: Fair Isle. Where I was supposed to arrive this afternoon but due to weather conditions, I won’t be able to get there until Monday at the earliest. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring Shetland, where I’m currently ‘stranded’, tomorrow.