A Fair Isle Catastrophe. By Paul Jeffrey

Dr Willian Eagle Clarke was the first ornithologist to recognise Fair Isle as a great migration
watch point in 1905. He encouraged islanders to record birds too, and in the first 10 years Fair
Isle had added 35 new species to the Shetland list and 6 to the British list. Clarke last visited
Fair Isle in 1921 but brought his successor with him on his final trip there, Rear Admiral John
Hutton Stenhouse. One of the great pioneers of Scottish ornithology was George Waterston.
Waterston met Stenhouse at the Royal Scottish Museum and learned of the studies Fair Isle
had initiated. Waterston first visited Fair Isle in 1935 and launched plans for a permanent Bird
Observatory on the island. The Second World War interrupted the plans, however eventually
Waterston purchased Fair Isle in 1948 for £3,500. The Bird Observatory opened in August of
the same year.
The Bird Observatory was a collection of war time naval huts situated in the sheltered havens.
With modern heating and building techniques of the 21st century it doesn’t bare thinking about
staying on Fair Isle in September or October in nothing more than a shed! In 1969 a new
purpose-built Bird Observatory opened just up the hill from the original Observatory at Mavers
Cup, a wooden design with a flat roof. Over the years the weather took its toll and over the
winter of 1988/89 a significant refurbishment took place and the exterior walls were encased in
harled blockwork. The refurbishment prolonged the life of the building but couldn’t hide the
problems of the flat roof and internal plumbing problems.
My first visit to Fair Isle was in 1995, Roger Riddington (now editor of British Birds) was the
warden that year. In a week’s stay I recorded just 65 species, the best bird of the week was a
Dunnock and the weather was not too kind either. But a love affair with an island was struck, I
returned for six consecutive autumns. Even in 1995 the creaking of the Observatory was
evident and there were wooden panels removed to attend to the plumbing. In 1999 I took up
ringing and soon progressed from a T permit to a C permit. It was suggested to me I should get
some seabird experience for my ringing activities. Where to go for this was simply a no brainer so I returned to Fair Isle in June 2002. Deryk and Hollie Shaw were the warden and
administrator that year.
My visit to Fair Isle in June 2002 was quite memorable as I worked alongside Observatory staff
climbing down cliffs with the aid of rope and climber’s helmet to ring Guillemots and Razorbills.
A boat ride in an inflatable dingy took me to nesting Shags and Kittiwake too. I spring trapped
Arctic Skuas and some common garden birds too including Twite. Deryk and Hollie didn’t have
to have me for that week but they did, I carry a debt of gratitude to them to this very day.
I continued to visit Fair Isle in September, the Observatory continued to creek and groan, so
much so there were plans afoot for a brand new Observatory. In 2009 the Observatory was
closed to visitors for the year and the bulldozers moved in and the old Observatory was raised
to the ground. The new Observatory was built in Orkney in a pod formation and transported to
Fair Isle on barges. The lifting equipment and the transportation of the pods was a logistical
challenge, but it was achieved. Unfortunately, the main contractor went into liquidation prior to
the completion of the project. Appeals were launched to fund the completion, I couldn’t see any
better reason to get my cheque book out. My little donation seemed like small change against
a £4 million project however the new state of the art Observatory was eventually finished and
was open to the public again in 2010.

I was back to have a look at the new Observatory in September 2011, however in recent years I have changed
tack and my last two visits have been in May. May can be equally productive for rare and scarce birds, the weather is
very much kinder to the observer and you are not required to round up sheep on the hillsides either. I think I am
far too old for all that now.

My fourteenth visit to Fair Isle was to commence from May 4th 2019. The events of the weekend of 9th and 10th of March 2019 will live long in the memory. On Saturday I had visited the Holkham Bay in a sand storm it was the best day of the weekend. Sunday, I treated myself to a protracted stay in bed followed by a day in front of the wood burner, frankly it was the only place to be. At 14:30 I was checking E-mails and looking at Facebook when I received a message via BBC Scotland, reading Fair Isle Bird Observatory’s roof lost in fire. I was stunned, transfixed to the screen in disbelief, nothing seemed to be able to shift me away from my stunned silence. Perhaps the media had blown it out of proportion. I posted a few messages and one to Deryk and Hollie on Fair Isle. In the fruition of time the enormity of the catastrophe became evident. After night fall and after fighting the fire I had a reply from Deryk and Hollie, “all was lost, no loss of life”.

Before the wood had stopped smouldering defiant words rang out, “we will rebuild”. The
Observatory was well insured but rebuilding inside one year might be a bigger ask than the
last rebuilding project. When it has been rebuilt I will return, hopefully claiming the holiday that
I lost this year. David and Susannah Parnaby (warden and his wife) lost all but everything in
the fire, a Facebook appeal raised £20,000 in 48 hours for them and by the Thursday night had
passed the £26,000 mark. The Observatory lost all historical artifacts too, but thankfully most
of the important data was not in the building.
On a past visit to Fair Isle, Andy Clements (BTO director) described Fair Isle as zen birding, I
believe only a fool could argue against that. Where else in the UK could you spend all the time
in the world all by yourself with a rare bird undisturbed? And where Clarke first shone the light
Fair Isle continues to astound, not only in the autumn of 2004 did Fair Isle add two new birds
to the British list Rufous-tailed Robin and Chestnut-eared Bunting, both birds were new for the
Western Palearctic too. Indeed, Fair Isle has added more species to the British List than any
other locality in Britain and for a small island of 768 hectares (2.97 square miles) it also boasts
an impressive list of 390 species. Quite frankly there is nowhere else that compares, I hope the
phoenix rises again as I also hope to return again.

References:-
Fair Isle bird reports.
Fair Isle through the seasons, Malachy Tallack and Roger Riddington 2010.
Wickapedia.

 

 

Fair Isle Bird Observatory Fund Raising

Last year in the after math of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory fire I wrote a brief history of Fair
Isle and about the fire itself. Even as the ashes were still settling there was a vow to rebuild.
At Birdfair 2019 I spoke with the representatives of Fair Isle Bird Observatory who informed me
they were not looking to rebuild again like for like. The staff felt their accommodation and
working space was not to their liking and a different build would take place. Indeed, a different
architect was also employed.
The mark 4 bird observatory cost £4.2 million to build with the main contractor going bust before
completion, which initiated a fund raising to get the task completed. With inflation and the new
design, the mark 5 observatory is going to cost £7.2 million to build – a considerable financial
increase. Whilst the insurance paid out for the last observatory FIBOT is left to fund raise
£650,000. If anyone would like to contribute to a very worthwhile cause please visit the web
site at www.fairislebirdsobs.co.uk The web site also has pictures of the new build, £38,478 was
raised in the first two days and by 14th October 2020 £178,203 had been reached; let’s hope
the target is reached as soon as possible. Just imagine if you put your hand in your pocket to
help, perhaps one day you might just visit Fair Isle to see what you helped to build. Whilst the
thought of never travelling overseas again doesn’t bother me, the thought of never going to Fair
Isle again is rather disturbing. The schedule for completion is the summer 2021, I hope to be
back soon after.

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