Sitting between the remote Orkney and Shetland Isles, Fair Isle is a tranquil attraction home to historic shipwrecks, a culture of knitting, and (most importantly) a bird observatory!
While this Wildlife visitor’s site is more complicated to reach than others in Scotland, its remoteness makes it an excellent place to explore Birdwatch without worrying about noisy tourists or distractions.
The island has become a prime destination for birders willing to travel to Fair Isle, who know that its sparse human population makes it a desirable destination for seabirds to visit and breed.
There have been sightings of at least 360 unique bird species on the island, including Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemot, Arctic Terns, and more!
A trip to the Fair Isle Observatory is recommended for only the most enthusiastic birder, but it’s an experience that you will remember once you’re there.
In This Post
About the Fair Isle Birds
Fair Isle is a tiny Isle measuring about 768 hectares (about 3 square miles), with a permanent population of 70 residents throughout the year. Although few people live on the island, Fair Isle is known for its vibrant knitted clothing. Fair Isle is a knitting style that most residents make their living off of.
But for birders coming to the Isle, the Fair Isle Bird Observatory is the premier attraction, managed by the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust.
The Observatory was built in 1948 and is a fantastic place to watch migratory birds and stay for the night if you want to extend your stay on Fair Isle.
Many record bird sightings of rare birds have been recorded on Fair Isle, and many birders claim that the Isle is one of, if not the best, places to go birdwatching. Before taking a trip and visiting the Isle, here are some things you ought to know:
Details to Know
If you’ve exhausted all the birdwatching havens in Mainland Scotland, why not save the best for last and navigate North to Fair Isle? Just before the Shetland Isles and just past the Orkney Isles, this north haven is a stunning bird paradise with records for bird sightings.
The Bird Observatory, which sits south of the airport, is an excellent place to enjoy the many species that roost on the Isle during its busy breeding season.
The Observatory also has a guest house, although you’ll need to book well in advance to score yourself a room – it gets booked exceptionally quickly. Luckily, there’s much to do during your stay, making it entirely worth it.
You should also bring ample warm clothes and windproof accessories as the wind, especially near the coastline, can become especially strong.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Fair Isle and its Observatory is, no doubt, between late April, May, June, and July during the summer breeding season. During these busy months, the island comes alive with many species and subspecies of birds, looking to seek shelter and lay eggs before they set out again during August and September.
That being said, if you want to avoid the busy season, the Isle is home to permanent bird residents that would delight any avid birder – including Palla’s grasshopper warbler, Caspian plover, and more!
How to Get There
Fair Isle’s remoteness is one of the main challenges but doesn’t worry; there are still plenty of ways to reach the Isle. Cruises and ferries are the most popular way to get to the Isle, with shops leaving the Shetland Mainland to go regularly to Fair Isle.
The ship is called the Good Shepard IV and leaves from Grutness three times a week.
The other option is to fly in at the Fair Isle Airport, which accommodates flights from Tingwall each day of the weekday, with Saturday flights also available during the summer months.
Top Birds of Fair Isle
The natural beauty of Fair Isle is to be appreciated, and the tiny Isle will be the highlight of anyone’s trip. But the ringing calls that echo from the cliffs will be a special treat for avid birders coming for seabird monitoring. Here are the top bird species to look out for while you’re visiting:
Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica)
Fair Isle boasts one of the largest colonies of Puffins in the UK, and they can be seen nesting on the small rocks and sea stacks surrounding Fair Isle. These birds only lay a single egg per couple and are easily spotted thanks to their multi-coloured beaks.
Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea)
Arctic Terns are easily identified by the black cap on their head, their red beaks, and their highly angular wings. They’re known for having one of the most extended migratory patterns in the world, travelling between the Arctic and Antarctic each year!
Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)
Birders will be overjoyed to know that one of the largest populations of the Black Guillemot can be found on Fair Isle! Grabbing a photo or taking videos of these impressive birds has always been challenging, with the summer months being their most abundant season.
Watch for their black feathers, red legs, and beaks during the summer breeding period.
European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus)
The Storm Petrel is a unique ground-nesting bird that keeps its eggs and nests underground, which poses a challenge for birders to spot their young. Nevertheless, the Petrel can be identified by its black feathers and easy-to-spot square tail during its flight display.
Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)
Watching the Northern Gannet dive into the water for fish is a fantastic sight, especially since this bird species is the largest that exists entirely on fish. The female of the species can regularly be seen guarding their single egg during the spring and summer, waiting for it to hatch in late summer.
Accommodation options are sparse in Fair Isle, which makes sense given the area’s remoteness, but there are still several places where you can end a day of productive birdwatching on the Isle.
The guest lodge at the Bird Observatory is one of the best places to relax, but the Fair Isle Lodge and The Auld Haa guest house are other great choices.
Things to Do Nearby
Fair Isle is jam-packed with excellent things to do nearby, including the iconic North and South Fair Isle Lighthouses, which grant spectacular views out to the North Sea. North Haven has some highlights, too, including shops that sell the delightful Fair Isle-styled knitwear.
The Isle also has shipwrecks dating back to the 13th and 16th centuries, with fascinating historical museums and curio shops.