Sunday, 28 August 2016

More Days on the Superb Birding Island that is North Ronaldsay.

North Ronaldsay, Orkney, here are the highlights of another great week on this wonderful island with wonderful people:-

Saturday 21st August

A barred warbler has been caught in the mist nets at Holland House and I cycle hard to get the bird onto the list. A regular scarcity I know (hope) I will be seeing more in the field but at least this bird in the hand is securely onto my Green Year list.
From Holland House I decide to survey Section A and search along the dry stone walls that head towards Gretchen, a large pool not far from the Observatory.

A couple approaching the hide there flush almost everything but once the three of us are settled inside waders soon start to return and what variety. Over the next hour a wood sandpiper drops in, nine black-tailed godwits, two ruff, fourteen dunlin, three ringed plover, seven redshank, a lone lapwing and the icing on the cake occurs when five little stint fly in together.

Heading along the beach north and searching the walls once more, a pied flycatcher is fly catching.
Back at Holland House, the ringers have packed up and sitting on a squat folding chair I watch an area of sycamores for an hour. The barred warbler with it's silver engagement ring is seen, a tatty ringed chiff, two willow warblers in better condition, a blackbird, lots of house sparrows, linnets and a few meadow pipits pass.

The afternoon surveying section E with Larissa the highlight is when we watch and count the waders on Westness beach. Twelve species of wader can't be bad for an Orkney island; knot, ruff, dunlin, turnstone, ringed plover, redshank, oystercatchers, curlew, golden plover, a few sanderling, a single curlew sandpiper and four little stint. Brilliant.

Sunday 22nd August

Early in the misty morning George Gay and I do the trap run, that is we see what birds are around the Heligoland traps around the Bird Observatory to catch and ring. It is a cool and foggy morning and a lesser whitethroat is caught at the first trap but an acro eludes us by diving over the stone wall.
A barred warbler flies from out of cover at the next trap and flies hard across a field. One 'in the field', knew I would get one. Willow warbler are taken with the lesser whitethroat to be rung.

I head off for the harbour to do survey work along the shore line. Eight purple sandpipers are the highlight, as confiding as ever once I sit down to watch them. A redstart is a new bird for my Year North Ronaldsay list.
Late afternoon, Sam has found a greenish warbler. Right at the far end of the island in the back garden of a croft in Section F, the bird is seen by all. Sam is on a roll having found wrynecks, barred, icterines, the last I missed despite searching the area, and now a greenish.

Monday 23rd August

Happy (spoiler alert) 84th birthday Mum! Who loves you? Xxxxx

Ringing with the Three Musketeers again, Erin, Gavin and George, twenty eight birds involving twelve species caught including pied flycatchers, swallows and a wheatear.
This is at Holland House again with the twelve mist nets.
Around the buildings a black redstart flits about as a sand martin flies with the swallows.

Cycling around a few key locations, Ancum Willows is first. Here whilst talking with the ex-warden Pete Donnolly, who still lives on the island, a whitethroat is amongst the iris flags and a wryneck comes out onto the low stone wall nearby. It flies past us and lands on wires and even comes down onto the road nearby.
Later Lotti's garden has a barred and a willow warbler in it. The Post Office garden has a lesser whitethroat.
Back at the Bird Observatory, Bryony points out two red-backed shrikes.
In the afternoon it is Larrisa's turn to do the seawatching session and together we sit in the seawatching hide. A couple of sooty shearwaters pass west bound and nine manx. More exciting though is the appearance of five Risso's dolphins. 

After getting Larissa onto them we phone the Bird Observatory and a full Land Rover arrives with the crew. Luckily everyone gets onto the dolphins albeit a bit distantly as they have drifted north west.
Continuing seawatching alone another group of Risso's, six of them come past. Three storm petrels do likewise and a summer plumaged great northern diver.

In the evening one of the red-backed shrikes enters a Heligoland trap and is rung to the delight of all of the visitors in the Obs. My evening is spent with two lovely Swiss ladies, one of whom is a contempory dancer who started dancing at The Mac in Birmingham.

Tuesday 24th August

Up at 5:00am the fog is the thick and there is a light westerly. A garden warbler is caught at Holland and a lesser whitethroat is amongst the buildings. 

The crew are great fun and have such phenomenal energy. Up most of the night and still out there early doors. Brilliant, inspiring group.
The black redstart is still around.
Larissa and I survey Section B once more. We do the first part together and there are good numbers of snipe, or snips as Larissa likes to call them, and willow warblers. We split up as last time. Larissa heads towards Stromness and I to Bride's.
The golden plover is close and numbers over a thousand yet no American or Pacific is hiding amongst them. A fulmar has managed to get itself trapped in a ruined croft and I pick it up carefully, avoiding the spit out oil, and take it to the shore.

Wednesday 25th August

Bryony has found a possible marsh warbler at Bride's! Sam, doing the survey with her, is convinced the acro' is a marsh. 

I am at the seawatching hide alone when the news comes in. I am there because George had a Cory's shearwater pass earlier in the day. The crew assemble at the field where the possible rare warbler was last seen and a mist net assembled to try to catch it. Each attempt the bird misses the net by inches each time; the last attempt has the bird land seemingly at the bottom of the net but as Gavin rushes towards it it appears behind the net and skips over the wall.

Beside the field is a huge area of iris flags and the bird flies off into the cover of these. Sam is not giving up though and heads off in pursuit. Gavin, Erin and George remove their boots and follow. The fun that ensues is immense as the boys wade through thigh deep water in search of the bird.
Eventually the search is called off and most people return to the Observatory with a question mark still hanging over the proper identification.
Sam and I stay and for two hours search, find and get superb views of a . .. marsh warbler. Bird number 276 and a great relief after what happened in May in Lincolnshire. You may remember that I found a marsh warbler, photographed it yet persuaded myself after a couple of hours that I was not sure I was correct. My photographs mostly pointed to marsh but I didn't count it. Now we had the bird and Sam was happy. He is phenomenal with his knowledge of birds and I stand in awe as he reels off the subtle ID features.

Thursday 26th August

My plan had been to stay until the end of the month but the winds seem all wrong for further migrants (how wrong can one be!) and I decide to leave and head for Fair Isle via the Orkney mainland.
Sam and I are out at 5:30am though hoping to re-find the marsh warbler. My aim is to get better photographs especially of the tertials and primaries.
We search but don't find it and after two hours return to the Obs via Holland House garden.
Just time to shower, have breakfast and say the last goodbyes to everyone. 

A team photograph then a team hug ends in a mass tickle.
Onto the ferry, a phone call from George and as the boat heads off across the bay five distant figures wave. Tears and thanks.

North Ronaldsay is superb and the potential to find your own birds is great. Visit and you won't regret it.


Monday, 22 August 2016

It's raining Migrants

Saturday 20th August fresh to strong E rain AM, cloudy PM

Gavin, the wardens' birthday boy son, rushes into the observatory and soon everyone is rushing into the ringing shed. 

He has trapped a juvenile red-backed shrike in one of the nearby Heligoland traps. Crowded into the small shed everyone admires the angry bird whilst I after a quick view quickly head off in the direction of the tall stone wall around the Observatory's fields. Gavin has seen a number of migrants sheltering from the rain and the gale along the sea wall and they included an icterine warbler; arguably the most important of the target birds for August. Gavin had texted me but I had stupidly not carried my mobile with me into the Obs, having left it on charge by my pillow!
I search the wall and am joined by Larissa, George and Gavin. 

Together we search as willow warblers, pied flycatchers and a garden warbler flit in front of us. No icky, four of the birds end up in the Heligoland trap box and are taken to be processed.

What a wonderful start for Gavin's 19th birthday. There has obviously been a fall of migrants and who knows what else will turn up.
Larissa, the Canadian volunteer, has asked me to accompany her on census duties and together we set off for the expansive section B. We walk and chat and pass Holland House before turning right towards a large area of irises and docks.
A phone call from Sam. He has found an icky and so I head off towards the potential Green Year tick. Within a couple of hundred yards Sam is phoning again, Gavin has found a barred warbler by the Post Office.
Gavin's bird is on the way to the icterine and I meet up with him. For half an hour or so we search together but can't relocate the chunky warbler. I head off to the croft where Sam had seen the icterine. Reaching there I spend another half an hour watching a dense rectangle of willows and short sycamores but once again fail to see the special one. On returning to my bike I find that the gathered group of young bulls has chewed all of the laminated signs on the front of my bike. Gone is the RSPB – A Home for Nature, gone is the Marine Conservation Society and gone is the Stop Me and Buy One. They have eaten the lot, plastic, paper and all! At least they haven't eaten Albert the cuddly albatross of the Birdlife International Albatross Campaign.
I rush back to Section B to try to find Larissa. I phone repeatedly but only receive leave a message answers.
Eventually we do find each other. Larissa has found garden warbler and pied flycatcher whilst I was away. Larissa came to Britain with little knowledge of British birds but she has excellent field skills and sharp eyes. I can't help but be very impressed with her attitude and ability.
We spilt up again in a short while as I head off for Brides bay and Loch and she heads towards Stromness Point. This way we can cover more of Section B.
I meet two of the locals, Sheila and Ian, as they are persuading a group of black bullocks into a new pasture and spend fifteen minutes or so talking about the island. Both born and bred on the island they say they would never consider leaving.

Two whinchats are on fence posts along the road down to Brides and a pied flycatcher is the only migrant seen from a long walk along the seawall and extensive iris beds at Bridesness Point.
Five tufted ducks are on Brides Loch and I wait here for Larissa who I can see some way off searching around a ruined croft.
Together we circle the Loch, crashing through iris beds and tall grasses. 

At one point Larissa disappears and I am panicked thinking she has gone down in a muddy ditch. She has but luckily she has fallen horizontally, into the mud only up to her knees.
Duck are flushed out, shovelor, teal and mallard. Waders too including two green sandpipers and a ruff. A reed warbler is with a sedge warbler in the long grass, a new bird for Larissa. We find the whinchats and Larissa has yet another new bird for her growing British list.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Two Weeks on North Ronaldsay, Orkney

Two weeks on North Ronaldsay, Orkney, here are the highlights of each day:-

Saturday 6th August Ferry Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay

Leaving the superb Bed & Breakfast, Hildeval, in Kirkwall, caught the 9:00am ferry. 

A gentleman walked with me to the ferry terminal, Steve, saying that he had met a person biking and birding in the Lake District, on the Shap road back in 2010. “That was me,” I said. We quickly told of remembered details of that encounter and told of what we had both been doing since.

With barely a ripple on the sea and almost no cloud or wind, the ferry crossing was a delight. Birds seen included over fifty black guillemot, twenty or so puffins, eight arctic skuas, five bonxies (great skuas) and numerous arctic terns, fulmars, gulls, gannets and shags. The only cetacean seen was a single harbour porpoise.
Arriving at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, thrilled to find that Sam Perfect and George Gay were both still there, having stayed on as assistant wardens for another year. Sam and George are two superb young birders with phenomenal knowledge and commitment to birding, part of the new 'let's find our own rarities' generation. As with the members of the Next generation Birders, Sam and George give an old cynic hope for the future.
With them were a number of young girls; Erin and Bryony from Cheltenham, Larissa from Canada and Ellen. Then there was Heather, the daughter of the wardens, Alison and Kevin and finally Laura, Alison's niece.

Sunday 7th August A walk along the whole of the west and north west coastline of the island, seawatch with George, Erin and Bryony and run back to the Observatory.

Reacquainting myself with the island and the famous seaweed-eating sheep, walked the rocky coastline counting all birds seen.
These included no less than 177 black guillemots, 15 bonxies, 15 arctic skuas, four of which were pale phase birds, 27 purple sandpipers and vomit chucking fulmar chicks. The latter were tucked in against the high dry stone wall that surrounds the island keeping the sheep on the coast. The first chick I came across unexpectedly as the rocky, Rousay flagstone coast was the centre of my attention. 

The shock of being so close to a large yet unobtrusive chick that immediately started trying to spit the evil oily gunge at me had me looking out for others to avoid disturbing them. I didn't want them wasting their food on me.
Seawatching gave a new bird for the Green Year list; sooty shearwaters, 8 of them, bird number 272.
Other birds seen included 9 storm petrels, 14 manx shearwaters and 2 arctic skuas. A lone greenshank was by a rockpool nearby.
A report came in of a leach's petrel in the bay back at the Bird Observatory four miles away. I ran/walked as fast as I could but it had gone when I got there.

Monday 8th August Walk to North End and Seawatch.

Tremendous gale, 50-60 miles per hour north westerly, cloudy.

What a storm! Seawatch as the tallest waves I have ever seen created wall after wall of pounding surf and cappuccino froth on the rocks.
Fulmars and gannets were passing in good numbers, 2 arctic skuas with one pale phase, the other dark and a couple of bonxies did likewise. A strange sight were 4 greylag riding the waves.

Tuesday 9th August strong NNW sunny intervals & showers

Morning spent clearing the first part of the beach of plastic and the afternoon seawatching from the hide at the north end of the island;
one hour of which gave:-
kittiwake 167
gannet 216
fulmar 343
arctic tern 179
manx shearwaters 2
sooty shearwaters 4
guillemot 3
puffin 4
auk sp. 2
bonxie 2
arctic skua 3 (all dark phase)
storm petrel 1

Wednesday 10th August light NW sunny intervals & showers

Invited to participate in the surveying of the island's birds. Now the island is divided into six sections, A to F and the assistant wardens take turns covering each one, counting every bird seen. One person does a seawatch.

Section B – south east corner of island. Along Nouster Bay beach to Burrian Broch, to Brides Loch and back to the Observatory via dykes, iris beds, ruined crofts and fields.
38 bird species seen. 128 seals, common and grey.

Thursday 11th August light SE, cloudy, misty, mild.

Section E – centre of island to north coast, including Ancun Loch and Garso Wick, a large bay with good wader numbers.

42 bird species, including a strange redpoll, whimbrel and a snipe drumming.

Early evening spent seawatching with Gavin, the son of the wardens and a superb birder. Gavin is also a bird ringer and last year, having set the mist nets up in Holland House garden, found a veery!
In two hours we had 4 sooties, 2 arctic skuas and a single bonxie.

Friday 12th August strong W low cloud, dry

Section F – North east of the island icludes Garso and Bewan Lochs, the area around the lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse on land in the UK, and various fields, dykes and coastline.

Around 700 arctic terns were roosting at Bewan with an attendant 7 arctic skuas. A grey heron was new, as was a little grebe on Garso.

Sunday 14th August light W low cloud, showers

A prolonged 5 hour seawatch from 6:30am, an overnight petrel trapping session.

Fulmar 1730
gannet 419
arctic tern 132
black guillemot 6
puffin 22
auk sp. 37
storm petrel 14
bonxie 10
arctic skua 4
kittiwake 197
manx shearwater 10
sooty shearwater 38
shag 2
great black backed gull 21

Petrel ringing with Gavin, Erin and George. Mist nets are set up along the coastline edge near to the Bird Observatory and speakers send out petrel calls into the darkness. Birds attracted and caught are measured ringed and carefully released.

leach's petrel 1 (Green Year tick to take me to 273)
storm petrels 44

Monday 15th August light to fresh S/SE very sunny, clear.

Seawatch for two hours in the morning, able to see fair isle from the hide. Section A surveyed in the afternoon for four hours.

Seawatch highlights – 5 sooties, 2 manx, 2 stormies.

Section A – the south west corner of the island including Holland House gardens, the Old Kirk graveyards and the Bird Observatory. Gretchen Loch has a bird hide and there's rocky coastline and many dykes and fields to cover.

Willow warbler and chiff chaff in the garden at Holland House, which by the way is the large home of the island's laird. Sedge warblers were back at the observatory.

Tuesday 16th August light S/SE very sunny and clear.

Seawatch in late (!) morning with Larissa. Very calm sea and few birds in a two hour watch:-
114 fulmar, 41 gannet, 1 sooty shearwater, 2 black guillemot, 2 puffin, 3 auk sp. 5 bonxie, 9 cormorant, 2 shag, 16 arctic tern, 1 herring gull, 1 great black backed gull

Section D – mostly the west coast and inland fields and dykes. Also a few croft gardens.

Talked with Lotti who was born on the island and at 77 years young has lived here for nearly all of her life.
Highlight of the census was 3 willow warblers in Lotti's garden.

Wednesday 17th August fresh SE very warm and sunny

Visited Cruesbeck in section B, a large iris bed with a deep ditch full of the same and a small area of marshy water out of which came 21 snipe, a ruff and 2 redshank.
At Ancun later on I saw a very strange hirundine that I can only think of as a hybrid between swallow and house martin. As it came towards me I saw a pure white throat and thought, house martin. When it hawked in front of me I was shocked to find swallow like tail streamers and no white rump. Strange bird.

Thursday 18th August light SE very sunny and warm

Early morning ringing in Holland House garden with Erin, Gavin and George. A twite was caught as were two willow warblers and a female pied flycatcher. Migrants are coming!

A filming and interview with Richard, Cameron and Ian from BBC Scotland's The Adventure Show takes a few hours. This will be broadcast around Christmas. Lunch with them afterwards was wonderful with all of us contributing anecdotes and stories. We were joined at the table by the well known photographer, Keith Allardyce who has written books about beachcombing.

Section E – highlights included a curlew sandpiper, two whimbrel and a willow warbler.

Friday 19th August fresh S/SE high cloud rolled away to give a sunny afternoon, warm until evening the strong E and cold!

Holland House – unringed willow warbler

Old Kirk graveyards – black redstart, willow warbler, two wheatear

Section F – highlights included a female merlin, two willow warbler and four sand martins.

An evening on the beach for the birthday BBQ to celebrate Gavin's 19th birthday.