Thursday, 3 November 2016

More Seawatching From North Ronaldsay, Orkney.

Wednesday 2nd November Strong NW High seas.

Sunny intervals, heavy showers. Lots of rainbows!


Another early start seawatch from the hide at the north-west end of the island.
Samuel Perfect and I see 6 little auks during 4 hour seawatch. Also 113 sooty shearwater, 1 manx shearwater, 6 long-tailed duck, 233 fulmar, 131 kittiwake, 95 gannet, 4 red-throated divers, 1 great northern diver, 28 guillemot, 2 razorbill, 1 puffin, 6 black guillemot, 97 auk sp.
21 snow buntings fly in from far out to see and head inland.


Heavy showers briskly pass, their coming forewarned by beautiful rainbows, including a few doubles. The Sun is low in the sky here in November, making each rainbow tower high overhead.

A restful afternoon before a meal and then a meeting of a newly formed Green Birding Group. Plans and requirements listed and discussed for a future event.

An email arrives stating that the RBA (rare Bird Alert) weekly round up of the rare birds seen during the week. On opening it and scrolling down we find the Fea's Petrel we saw a couple of days ago listed and detailed.
Also they have placed our Youtube moment of the sighting onto the page!



Thursday 3rd November Light S-SE

Sunny intervals at first, heavy showers later.

Yet another early start seawatch from the hide at the north-west end of the island. Samuel and I enjoy them so much and the variety of birds passing each time holds the promise of yet another very special bird.

The clarity of the air, as we cycle the four miles from Observatory to hide, is superb and Fair Isle is a series of dark, ricky lumps on the horizon.
We follow the same routine as of the last couple of seawatchs; that is we block four 15 minute counts to make a first hour total of all passing bird species and then free seawatch for the next three hours, listing the 'better' birds.

Our total for the first hour then goes like this:-

Fulmar 3,383
Blue fulmar 7
Gannet 213
Kittiwake 251
Auk sp, 212
Guillemot 32
Little auk 5
Black guillemot 1
Sooty shearwater 26
Manx shearwater 1
Long-tailed duck 7
Red-throated diver 2
Great northern diver 2
Greylag 5
Pomarine skua 6
Mallard 6
Purple sandpiper 1

There is a temptation to count the fulmars as such high numbers are passing. We don't because there are so many other distracting bird species to watch. The number of blue fulmars and sooty shearwaters is relatively high and the skuas are passing again.

Then there's Fair Isle. Today the island is mirage-like and bits keep disappearing in the haze. Sheep Rock is almost a constant, except when a heavy shower hits the island from the south. Yet Malcolm's Head is suddenly not there. The geos of the west coast and Ward Hill are usually clear and just occasionally features can be seen on the cliffs.

I am watching for passing seabirds using Sheep Rock as a marker when a few intermittent tall splashes occur just to the south of it. I alert Samuel and we both watch as a very distant whale species breeches repeatedly. Too far away to discern what species it actually is, we do see it clear the water on a few occasions. Frustratingly that is the last we see of it and also frustratingly we can't alert the other volunteers at the Bird Observatory as the mobile signal is out of action. Two hundred yards from a couple of huge radio masts and no signal!

Our three hour count gives us :-

Blue fulmar 27
Little auk 8
Black guillemot 2
Puffin 6
Sooty shearwater 87
Manx shearwater 3
Long-tailed duck 6
Red-throated diver 2
Great northern diver 1
Pomarine skua 5
Great skua 6
Skua sp. 3
Mallard 8
Wigeon 4
Teal 2


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Green-winged Teal and Fea's Petrel video . . . or sorts!

Tuesday 1st November Strong W High seas.

Sunny intervals, one very quick light shower, cool

After the last two days seawatching, after a very late bedtime the previous night due to Halloween fun and with a very strong North west to west gale blowing, I decide to have a rest morning.
A video of the passing dot, I mean Fea's petrel is downloaded onto Youtube. That takes over three hours for a twenty second or so video!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fr_MzOa7Nfc&feature=youtu.be 

Out eventually after lunch I head for the harbour quay with the intention of looking along the seaward side of the high sheep-proofing dry stone wall. This wall goes around the island keeping the World famous seaweed-eating sheep on the seaweed located side of the wall. There is a large flock of these doing just that, eating seaweed. Adds to the flavour, I have been told.
The gale is strong, whipping up the sea so much that there are areas of white or chocolate coloured foam amongst the rippled rocks. Purple sandpipers are on the calmer sheltered side of rocks whilst shags ride the waves.

The usual disappointing amount of plastic is to be found, mostly large, clear plastic bottles and carrying them soon proves to be without a bag. One hard plastic ring has come from Bergen, Norway. I wonder whether 'Rosendahl' would like it back?
To Gretchen, after admiring the rolling coasters and the crashing waves, into the battered hide and within seven teal viewed I have my second green-winged teal of the year.

The windswept pool has over a hundred wigeon, thirty nine teal and six mallards; a curlew, four redshank and three common gulls.

Back to the Bird Observatory, I see that the bags of plastic I collected from the beaches back in August are still behind the shed. What should one do with so much plastic waste when one is on a remote island far away from any recycling facilities? Leave it there in the forlorn hope that one day it will be taken to a recycling plant or burn it. I will leave it for the former. It isn't going anywhere.

October 2016 ...... Possibly The BEST Birding Month of My Life

Tuesday 1st November Strong NW Cloudy, cool

So a new month begins. Just two months to go before I hang up my cycling boots and relax into my dotage. You think?

I could never have dreamt that October would bring such birding riches, culminating in that incredible moment of having a Fea's petrel whilst seawatching with Samuel Perfect in the seawatching hide on North Ronaldsay, Orkney.

314 BOU on the year list; 311 AERC.

Whereas last at this time I was on 278, being 36 birds ahead of that is beyond belief. All ambitions for the year have been achieved; a new British Green Birding Big Year record, beating the iconic 300 target and finally beating the superb Spaniard, Ponc Feliu Latorre's European Green Birding Big Year record. Differences between the BOU list of birds and the AERC list were researched by Phil Andrews and to beat the European record on my favourite island, Fair Isle with a great, close friend, Lee Gregory will be a moment of such raw emotion that will stay with me forever.

Twenty one year ticks had! It started with a mobile Radde's warbler on Super Sunday, the 2nd of October. That day Blyth's reed warbler, Red-flanked bluetail and Pechora pipit were added also. Also saw another lanceolated warbler, one of three this Autumn. Fair Isle had four but I chose to search for a great snipe over seeing another lancy.

On a day when hundreds of barnacle geese were passing over Fair Isle, the 4th of October, I managed to miss maybe three hundred before seeing three flying high overhead. “Those can't be your first barnacles!” laughed Lee.

Mealy redpoll, a bird not on the AERC list, made the total 299 on the 7th and the magic 300 bird, a day later, was a Siberian Olive-backed pipit; that moment shared with Lee Gregory, as so many memorable moments were.

Leaving Fair Isle, a return to Shetland to try for the first ever Siberian Accentor in Britain was unsuccessful but over the next few days buff-breasted sandpiper, black-faced bunting, pied and isabelline wheatear were added.

Back to Fair Isle on the 18th, three birds were needed for the European crown. In a hectic couple of hours whilst cycling anticlockwise around the south of the island bean geese, a possible Stejneger's stonechat, a form of Siberian stonechat and finally a pine bunting were seen.

307 BOU, 305 AERC, A new European record.

Celebrations in the field were muted and dignified.


A beautiful male waxwing was the next bird onto the list on the 19th.

Birding moments rarely come any better than the events on the 20th. Whilst watching a very close long-eared owl, a series of texts hinted then blatantly told of a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR on the island somewhere. The painful dip of just a few days ago was forgotten; Lee Gregory, who else, had found the bird in Troila, a huge geo on the west coast.

Back to Shetland on the 25th, two Coue's arctic redpolls were amongst a tame and mixed flock of lesser and mealy redpolls in the capital city of Shetland, Lerwick.

A promise made to a wonderful bunch of amazing young people, the volunteers at the beautiful North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory, made a return journey there necessary. Happy days ahead. 

The events of the following day, the 30th, surpass any seawatching moment I have ever experienced before. One of the volunteers, Samuel Perfect from Hertfordshire, had had a great day seawatching the previous day recording good numbers of pomarine skuas and sooty shearwaters, along with excellent numbers of commoner seabirds and a couple of storm petrels.
Early on the 30th then Samuel and I came out of the Bird Observatory and immediately saw the male Northern harrier. OK, year tick and superb bird seen, we cycled on.
Arriving at the seawatching hide on the northern most shore of North Ronaldsay we settled down and started to watch and count. Little auk was soon added to the year list. Pomarine skuas were next. Three new year ticks in under an hour.

Then . . . . . . . .

Well scroll back to the 30th of October for a better description of what ensued at 9:10am.

So two months to go. The list keeps growing in such delightfully unexpected ways. There are birds to head for once I leave North Ronaldsay next Friday, weather permitting.

Will the garish Western purple swamphen be the final bird or will an Iceland gull be at Bartley Reservoir or Chasewater in The Midlands around the end of the year?


Two months is a long time and it would be nice to add another six birds to the year list. Will Ponc go for it next year? Will anyone else ever beat MY record? I hope so. If anyone tries they will have my full support and congratulations if they beat it. A Green Birding Year is hard, very hard.

Monday, 31 October 2016

A Calm, Steady Seawatch Day - North Ronaldsay, Orkney

Monday 31st October Light NW, freshening     Low cloud, some early rain, cooler.

Up early for another seawatching session with Samuel Perfect. I am awake at five partly due to a frightening scene in a dream/nightmare where Wayne Rooney and I are on the way to The Olympics in a lorry, as you do! We never got there . . . I woke up.
Rain is falling and has been for most of the night. Breakfast for champions is porridge with banana chips and honey and my travel mix of nuts and dried fruit is made up today in two bags; one for me and the other for Samuel. He deserves it being such a fantastic young man. Seeing Samuel with his Canadian girlfriend, Larissa is lovely. Both superb birders, Larissa found the glossy ibis yesterday, the latest in a string of good finds. Considering she is new to the UK, how she has developed into such a good birder is a credit to her. She is always the one in last when doing census and I remember having a 9 hour census day when we did census area B together back in August.
Gosh it is so good to be back on North Ronaldsay! Great to be part of the team and part of the 'family,'
There was excitement at the log call last night, not only over the northern harrier, hoopoe, green-winged teal, bean geese, Glossy Ibis and what Samuel and I saw on the seawatch (FEA'S!) but also because last thing, at the mist netting thrush roost session, a bat was flying around Holland. Now this is a very rare event in late October but the hope is that George Gay's photographs will lead to an identification.
Due to it now being what I call British Wintertime, that is the clocks have gone forward, it is now light at seven, just. How can one top yesterday's seawatch? Answer to that is probably can't so maybe today Samuel and I will concentrate on counting the birds! The seawatch yesterday had no counts for fulmar, gannet, auks, kittiwakes . . . . oops!
Samuel and I are at the seawatching hide by 8:30AM, as yesterday. The change of wind direction and the freshening of it, gives different conditions to yesterday and after deciding on making 15 minute counts of all bird species that pass, we settle down to the task.
Sooty shearwaters are passing, heading north west, as are good numbers of fulmar, gannet, kittiwake and various auks.
Every fifteen minutes we collate the counts and note 'specials'. We count the divers, skuas and a number of sooty shearwaters, gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes; auks of five species too.
Samuel leaves at 10:30AM for census work leaving me to continue to count the main three; gannet, fulmar and kittiwakes, whilst noting all other species.
By Noon we have the following seawatch list :

Fulmar 536
Gannet 555
Kiitiwake 109
pomarine skua 1 pale phase adult
great skua 1
skua sp. 1
guillemot 53
razorbill 13
puffin 10
black guillemot 8
little auk 5
sooty shearwater 32
long-tailed duck 5
teal 1
greylag 21
whooper swan 6
great northern diver 8
red-throated diver 7
common gull 5
great black backed gull 5
cormorant 2
shag 3
purple sandpiper 3
goldeneye 1 female


The pale phase adult pomarine skua was a particular delight, passing close in and showing extensive spoons. Two of the great northern divers were in Summer plumage still.

Returning to the Bird Observatory, I see Samuel counting wildfowl at Ancum. All of yesterday's whooper swans have gone; just singles of pintail and greater scaup amongst the shovelor, mallard and wigeon.


An evening of Halloween entertainment, a perfect time to watch Ghostbusters, followed Log. 

A new nickname from Larissa for me, Crusty The Clown!


Sunday, 30 October 2016

Maybe the Best British Birding Day Of My Life

Sunday 30th October Light SW Low cloud, mild 10C

After yesterday's number of passing pomarine skuas and sooty shearwaters, I am up early to go seawatching off the northern end of the island.
Porridge and banana chips for breakfast, Sam Perfect suddenly pokes his head around the kitchen door and we are off. Five whooper swans are flying south west, leaving the island.

Immediately seen as we cycle down the dirt track, the male Northern Harrier is in front of us flying around Gretchen. Bird number 311 BOU (British Ornithological Union) but only 308 on the AERC. Northern harrier is not a separate species to the Europeans. One day it will be I am sure.
Eight bean geese are in a field to the right by the World War memorial. Pink feets are to the left and then a large flock of greylags by the Ancum willows. Here we stop to look over Ancum Loch and see 54 whooper swans, and singles of goldeneye and greater scaup.
To the seawatching hide,we start to properly seawatch at 8:30AM.
Almost immediately the first sooty shearwaters fly past mid-range to distant; all are heading north west coming from the east. Sam gets on a great northern diver and I have a little auk quite close. Bird number 312 BOU.
More sooties, usually singly but occasionally in threes and fours pass and then a flurry of pomarine skuas. Bird number 313, three year ticks already today and after only thirty minutes or so of sewatching.

9:10AM

Me : Manx going left, close.

Me : no it isn't!

Me : Sam you need to get on this!!!!!

The bird is joined by a sooty shearwater, both going left, that is to the north west.

Sam : it's a ****ing FEA'S PETREL!!!!

The bird takes maybe three minutes or so before it is gone, heading north west. Screaming, laughing and general disbelief, a legendary Fea's petrel has just passed us, more than an ambition bird, a pure dream of a bird.
More screaming, more expletives, hugs and high fives and a complete lack of any further serious sea bird counting due to shaking, laughing, cheering, all accompanied by a few tears.

Phone calls made, texts sent and chaotic celebrations interspersed with bouts of goosebumps, nervous laughing and a slow realisation over what had just happened.

Sam is drawing sketches of what we have seen. Plumage and jizz details are discussed and notes made.

We settle down at last to carry on birding. Vegan Dutch fruit cake is shared and clinked together as one would with champagne. Cheers Sam!


At Noon we total up.

sooty shearwaters 114
manx shearwaters 2
pomarine skuas 10
bonxies (great skua) 9
little auk 3
great northern diver 7
red-throated diver 3
Long-tailed duck 12
wigeon 6
lapwing 4

We have also seen a few cetaceans; 2 or 3 minke whales and single Risso's dolphin and harbour porpoise.

One o'clock we start to make our happy way back towards the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. A ring-tail hen harrier passes. It's happy banter all the way.
A text comes from Paul Higson.

Interestingly, a fea's petrel petrel flew north past the north east of Shetland – Lamba Ness, Unst at about Noon.

So it seems that it took over two hours for our bird to get there. How fast can a petrel fly? Google doesn't seem to have the answer.
In 2014 a Fea's went along the East coast. It was reported from headland to observatory, birding spot to pier, promenade to cliff top. I wonder if anyone has worked out that bird's speed? I remember seeing a chart in the superb seawatching hide at Whitburn last year that showed times. It would be interesting to see the times and work out speed accordingly.

A quick look over Ancum, a few more whooper swans are on there
compared to this morning. Birds are moving.
A look around Holland and down towards the Observatory. Sam receives a phone call from Larissa. We turn around and cycle fast towards Hooking. Larissa has found a glossy ibis.
Half an hour later we all have the bird in view. It flies from Hooking Loch to the beach and back again before disappearing to the north.



Our evening is spent celebrating birds and friendship.

Back to North Ronaldsay

Saturday 29th October Light to fresh SW Low cloud, drizzle, mild 10C

So, after two days of resting in the company of very good friends, Alastair and Louise Forsyth and their children, Ellen and Molly; not forgetting Molly's boyfriend Liam, Sid the bearded dragon who is stunningly beautiful and finally Cora their dog, I get to the harbour in Kirkwall. Whilst loading the bike Steve the travelling cyclist I first met in The Lake District six years ago, is here once again. We chat until the ferry that will take me back to North Ronaldsay arrives.
A huge thank to The Forsyth's. I never ask for assistance or accommodation but Alastair is always there to offer both whenever I arrive on Orkney. They are such a lovely family and being in their company is always a delight.
Alastair and I had attended a superb talk the previous evening by Julian Branscombe in Kirkwall. His topic had been the Orkney vole and what a fascinating history that has. The hall connected to St Magnus' Cathedral was full with natural history-minded enthusiasts and the question and answer session after the excellent talk was one of the longest of such I have ever seen. Great evening.
Julian, tall and resplendent with a incredible pair of across the cheek moustachial stripes, which birders and RAF aficionados would appreciate, was witty and quick and he must be commended for the research he has carried out on the voles. A very extensive study with a possible conclusion that the vole population started when Neolithic Man brought the voles to Orkney in clay pots. This could have been a food item or a creature of religious significance or maybe even just a docile pet. However they got here, this species of vole is found nowhere else in Britain.
I first met Julian back on my first Biking Birder ride of 2010 when he put me up for the night after meeting me whilst birding the Deerness area of Orkney. Our next meeting was on Papa Westray, one Orkney's Northern Isles. Julian had found a first for Britain, a chestnut bunting, and despite taking four days to get from Fair Isle, I arrived late one misty afternoon to see that bird crawl around the birders' present feet. I stayed with the mega until dark and it wasn't there the next day. The soles of my shoes were checked for feathers!
Onto the ferry and a two and a half hour crossing, mostly in benign waters. The exception being the final hour of the crossing where the boat took the eastern route around Sanday. Here there was something of a swell but not too severe.

The birds I saw, whilst carrying on my latest stop seasickness routine of singing, included 8 long-tailed ducks, 9 eider, a few tysties (black guillemots) and 3 great northern divers.
Onto North Ronaldsay, I cycle the short distance to the superb North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory and, whilst placing my bike against their hostel wall, I hear what I instantly recognise as Erin's laugh.
On turning around I see the giggling couple of Erin and George, volunteers at the Observatory, holding sparklers! Their two small sparklers, both attached to sticks as Erin is scared of the sparks, soon fizzle out but our laughter doesn't. Hugs and smiles. What a 'home-coming.'

Into the Observatory, so great to be back, and a large Milky Way cheesecake is presented to me. Larissa, the brilliant Canadian birder, had remembered that Milky Ways are my favourite sort of chocolate bar. Well I'll devour that later when all of the staff are back from their census work; sorry we'll devour that!
I go to the hostel to sort my gear. I just sit down in the kitchen when George Gay rushes in.
Northern harrier out here now!”
We rush out but it has moved on. Oh well, at least it is still on the island.
George and I then cycle to the far end of the island to seawatch. Over a two hour watch, some of which I do alone whilst George surveys 'F', we see the following:

A) In half an hour census/seawatch count

68 gannet
202 fulmar
43 kittwake

B) in the two hours

3 great northern divers
2 bonxies (great skuas)
1 manx shearwater
27 sooty shearwaters
1 long-tailed duck

and 2 Risso's dolphin. George saw five!


An evening of sheer enjoyment with Observatory staff, laughter and cheesecake the winning combination. 

Bird log at nine o'clock reveals that there are some special birds to see; hoopoe and green-winged teal are present. Tomorrow could be good.